What’s So Funny?

Laughter is Simply how we Connect



Why do we have this unconscious propensity for something as frivolous as laughter? Jared Diamond wrote a short book with the provocative title Why Is Sex Fun? that suggests an evolutionary answer to the question of why tickling is fun: It encourages us to play well with others. In his book, Provine suggests that feigned tickling can be thought of as the original joke, the first deliberate behavior designed to exploit the tickling-laughter circuit. 

Our comedy clubs and our sitcoms are culturally enhanced versions of those original playful childhood exchanges. Along with the suckling and smiling instincts, the laughter of tickling evolved as a way of cementing the bond between parents and children, laying the foundation for a behavior that carries over into the social lives of adults. If we once laughed at the surprise touch of a parent or sibling, we now laugh at the surprise twist of a punch line. 

We may be the only species on the planet that laughs together in such large groups, but we are not alone in our appetite for laughter. Not surprisingly, our near relatives, the chimpanzees, are also avid laughers, although differences in their vocal apparatus cause their laughter to sound somewhat more like panting.

Parents will testify that ticklefests are often the first elaborate play routine they engage in with their children and one of the most reliable laugh inducers.

Like laughter, tickling is almost by definition a social activity. And like the incongruity theory of humor, it relies on a certain element of surprise, which is why it’s impossible to tickle yourself. A number of tickle-related studies have convincingly shown that tickling exploits the sensorimotor system’s awareness of the difference between self and other: If the system orders your hand to move toward your belly, it doesn’t register surprise when the nerve endings there report being stroked. But if the touch is being generated by another sensorimotor system, the belly stroking will come as a surprise. 

Playing is what young mammals do, and in humans and chimpanzees, laughter is the way the brain expresses the pleasure of that play. “Since laughter seems to be ritualized panting, basically what you do in laughing is replicate the sound of rough-and-tumble play,” says Robert Provine a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland. “And you know, that’s where I think it came from. Touching and being touched is an important part of what it means to be a mammal.” 

There is much we don’t know yet about the neurological underpinnings of laughter. We do not yet know precisely why laughing feels so good; one recent study detected evidence that stimulating the nucleus accumbens, one of the brain’s pleasure centers, triggers laughter. Some anecdotal and clinical evidence suggests that laughing makes you healthier by suppressing stress hormones and elevating immune-system antibodies. If you think of laughter as being basically synonymous with the detection of humor, the laughing-makes-you-healthier premise seems bizarre. Why would natural selection make our immune system respond to jokes? Provine’s approach helps solve the mystery. 

Our bodies aren’t responding to punch lines; they’re responding to social connection. And even if we don’t yet understand the neurological basis of the pleasure that laughing brings us, it makes sense that we should seek out the connectedness of infectious laughter. 

We are social animals, after all. And if that laughter often involves some pretty childish behavior, so be it. “This is why we’re not like lizards,” Provine says, holding the Tickle Me Elmo doll on his lap. “Lizards don’t play; they’re not social the way we are. When you start to see play, you’re starting to see mammals. So when we get together and have a good time and laugh, we’re going back to our roots. It’s ironic in a way: Some of the things that give us the most pleasure are really the most ancient.” 

Kemo D.  (a.k.a. no.7)
www.beyondgenes.com 

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