Why We Laugh
Laughter is a universal part of the human vocabulary but isn’t a conscious decision to express. What are we actually communicating when we laugh?
From babies, to children, to adults, the scenes cut to all them laughing. Dr. Robert Provine, the man holding the plush, laughing Elmo doll, is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, where he is Assistant Director of the Neuroscience Program and has explored the curious business of human laughter for close to 20 years.
In chimpanzees, their way of communicating “what I’m about to do is play” is an inhalation-exhalation sound, whereas the human laughter is a parsed exhalation. He explains that we’re neurologically programmed to laugh in a particular way and, if done differently, doesn’t sound like laughter anymore.
When he started his research in the lab, to analyze acoustic patterns of the sounds as well as how the brain produced them, he realized there was very little laughter from his subjects, no matter how funny the videos of comedic material were. His frustration of results lead him to switch tactics to “sidewalk neuroscience,” going outside the lab and into public locations to observe others and write down what was said before the laugh and who was laughing. This lead to his discovery that social laughter occurred thirty times (30x’s) more than solitary laughter and was based more on the relationship between speaker and audience than the contents of the previous message.
After engaging with two “sidewalk” subjects about their conversation and laughter, Dr. Provine delves into the darker side of laughter, where it can do just as much social damage as it social good. When we laugh, are we consciously in control and are we using it as a means for good or for bad?