What is laughter?

A new post by Archie Carfrae considering an important part of our everyday lives.

Yesterday when working at my other placement the subject of laughter was brought up. As I’m well known as a psychology student the attention was turned to me as I was asked a series of questions. Why do we laugh? Is it innate? What is humour? Is that innate?

I wasn’t particularly phased by this; I had a safety net. When writing essays for psychology you quickly learn that a few consistent statements can be adapted to answer almost any question. I assumed that we laughed because it is a form of social communication. Something to let others know everything is ok, to show enjoyment and maybe even flirtation; this is a classic evolutionary viewpoint. I then claimed that laughter is innate, as almost all behaviours are in some way, but of course it is also influenced by the environment; the old nature vs nurture debate.

However, when I was asked what humour was, it stumped me. I didn’t really have an answer. And then I let out a sort of awkward laugh, before I attempted to answer, which set off a series of thoughts about humour and laughter. I eventually gave an answer that humour is most likely related to intelligence and specifically our prefrontal lobes, the most developed part of the brain in comparison to other primates. Happily, I knew I could fall back on the nature vs nurture argument for the final question and the equilibrium was restored.

However, I did continue to wonder why I laughed when there was no humour present and realised this is an extremely common occurrence. It must mean that they are to separate constructs which don’t need to occur simultaneously. Through this I have come up with an unfalsifiable mantra which is in line with the saying “every thumb is a finger, but not every finger is a thumb”:

Not everything laughed at is funny, but everything funny is laughed at.

Now although this is full proof, I did decide to research it further and it is always surprising to me how such common behaviours are rarely thought about. The laughter researcher Robert Provine, in his book Laughter, claimed that he conducted an observation-based study where he recorded over one thousand instances of laughter in a public mall. He claimed that only about 20% of the laughter was in result of something funny. Although his studies have been critiqued for methodological reasons, he does demonstrate the point that there must be more to laughter than humour. It’s pretty easy to imagine. People laugh when embarrassed, when saying goodbye, to fill silences. Evolutionary theories argue that laughter probably came about around 2-4 million years ago, most likely before language. Similarly, it is thought that both humour and laughter have evolved a lot since that time also and are both influence by environmental factors. Whether or not this is true isn’t hugely important, but it was interesting reading about the difference between the two. Either way it still seems hard to understand why humans, find certain things funny and others not.