Laughter: The Funny Thing About Laughter

It's no joke: laughing may be one of nature's cleverest tricks for keeping us healthy and safe

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Good news for Carrot Top: jokes don't have to be funny to make people laugh. And good news for folks with tickets to a Carrot Top show: vigorously laughing even when there's nothing particularly amusing may be good for your health. Of all the absurdly silly things human beings do, laughing ought to be among the hardest to explain. If early homo sapiens were told they were going to be loaded with behavioral software that would cause them to convulse, pant and emit loud whooping noises when amused or touched in particular ways, they would probably have held out for Human 2.0. But the fact is, laughing makes a lot of sense.

What else can so enjoyably exercise the heart and boost the mood? What else can serve so well as both a social signal and a conversational lubricant? What else can bond parents to children, siblings to one another and teach powerful lessons about staying alive in a tooth-and-claw world? Laughter may seem like little more than evolution's whoopee cushion, but if scientists studying it are right, we owe it an awful lot of thanks for some surprisingly serious things.

One thing researchers notice about laughter is that it's something we seldom do

alone. "Laughter is 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations," says Robert Provine, psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. That's not just because it's devilishly hard to tell yourself a joke and convincingly respond, "No, no, I really hadn't heard that one before." Rather, it's because most of the time laughter is more a tool of communication than anything else.

Typically, Provine says, a laugh is what he calls social play vocalization, something we use instinctively to send disarming cues, hold a listener's attention and offer--or seek--encouragement to go on. "In conversation," he says, "speakers are often more likely to laugh than listeners."

In the course of his research, Provine has gone on discreet tours of his campus eavesdropping on the kinds of remarks speakers make before laughter occurs. Among the nonsidesplitters he has collected are "I've gotta go now," "I see your point" and the always rib tickling "I'll see you guys later." In each case, the laughter seemed merely a bit of audible punctuation.

Whether or not what the speaker says is genuinely funny, any reciprocal laughter from the listener serves as a powerful reward pellet, reinforcing the direction of the conversation. It also flatters the speaker, which can be a potent card to play when a conversation becomes flirtatious. "Women laugh most in the presence of men they find attractive," Provine says. "Men are the leading laugh getters; women are the leading laughers."

Just why the pleasure we take in wordplay or pratfalls elicits the noise we recognize as laughter is uncertain, but Provine says it has roots in the physical play of other primates. The human ha-ha, he believes, is very similar to the simian pant-pant, something that occurs a lot when apes wrestle and chase. "Laughter is basically the sound of labored breathing," he says.

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