Why are we laughing? New Study Suggests It May Be a Survival Strategy: ScienceAlert

A woman in labor is having a terrible time and suddenly shouts, “Wouldn’t! Wouldn’t! Couldn’t! Didn’t! Can’t!”

“Don’t worry,” the doctor says. “These are just contractions.”

So far, several theories have tried to explain what makes something funny enough to make us laugh. These include transgression (something forbidden), puncturing a sense of arrogance or superiority (derision), and incongruity – the presence of two incompatible meanings in the same situation.

I decided to review all the available literature on laughter and humor published in English over the past 10 years to see if other conclusions could be drawn.

After reviewing more than 100 articles, my research came up with one new possible explanation: laughter is a tool nature may have given us to help us survive.

I looked at research papers on theories of humor that provided important information in three areas: the physical characteristics of laughter, the brain centers associated with producing laughter, and the health benefits of laughter.

This amounted to more than 150 articles providing evidence for important features of the conditions that make people laugh.

By organizing all the theories into specific areas, I was able to summarize the laughter process into three main steps: bewilderment, resolution, and a possible clear signal, as I’ll explain.

This raises the possibility that laughter has been preserved by natural selection over the past millennia to help humans survive. It could also explain why we are attracted to people who make us laugh.

The evolution of laughter

The incongruity theory is good at explaining humor-driven laughter, but it’s not enough.

In this case, laughter is not about an all-pervasive feeling that things are out of line or incompatible. It’s about being in a specific situation that undermines our expectations of normality.

For example, seeing a tiger strolling down a city street might seem illogical, but it’s not comical – on the contrary, it would be terrifying. But when the tiger rolls like a ball, it becomes comical.

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Animated anti-hero Homer Simpson makes us laugh when he falls off the roof of his house and bounces like a ball, or when he tries to ‘strangle’ his son Bart, eyes baffling and tongue flapping as if he were rubber.

These are examples of the human experience shifting to an exaggerated, cartoon version of the world where anything—especially the ridiculous—can happen.

But to be funny, the event must also be considered harmless. We laugh because we recognize that the tiger or Homer has never actually hurt others, or even themselves, because their worlds are essentially not real.

So we can reduce the laughter to a three-step process. First, it needs a situation that seems strange and evokes a sense of incongruity (bewilderment or panic).

Second, the worry or stress that caused the incongruous situation must be worked out and overcome (solution). Third, the actual laughter acts as a clear siren to warn bystanders (relief) that they are safe.

Laughter could be a signal people have used for millennia to show others that a fight or flight response is not necessary and that the perceived threat is over.

That’s why laughter is often contagious: it unites us, makes us more sociable, signals the end of fear or worry. Laughter is life-affirming.

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We can translate this directly to the 1936 movie Modern Times, where Charlie Chaplin’s comedic bum character obsessively tightens bolts in a factory like a robot instead of a man.

It makes us laugh because we unconsciously want to show others that the disturbing spectacle of a man reduced to a robot is a fiction. He is a human, not a machine. There is no cause for alarm.

How humor can be effective

Likewise, the joke at the beginning of this article starts with a scene from normal life, then turns into something strange and mind-boggling (the woman is acting incongruously), but which we eventually realize is not serious and actually quite comical (the double meaning of the doctor’s response provides relief), leading to laughter.

As I showed in a previous study on the human behavior of crying, laughter is very important for the physiology of our bodies.

Like crying—and chewing, breathing, or walking—laughing is a rhythmic behavior that is a release mechanism for the body.

The brain centers that regulate laughter are those that control emotions, fears, and anxiety. Letting go of laughter breaks the stress or strain of a situation and floods the body with relief.

Humor is often used in a hospital setting to aid patients in their recovery, as studies of clown therapy have shown.

Humor can also improve blood pressure and the immune system and help overcome anxiety and depression.

Research explored in my review has also shown that humor is important in teaching and is used to emphasize concepts and thoughts.

Humor related to course materials keeps the attention and creates a more relaxed and productive learning environment. In an educational setting, humor also reduces anxiety, increases participation and increases motivation.

love and laughter

Looking at this data on laughter also allows us to hypothesize why people fall in love with someone because “they make me laugh”. It’s not just a matter of being funny. It can be a little more complex.

When someone else’s smile provokes ours, that person is signaling that we can relax, that we are safe – and that creates trust.

If our laughter is caused by their jokes, the result is that we overcome the fears caused by a strange or unfamiliar situation. And when someone’s ability to be funny inspires us to ignore our fears, we’re more attracted to them. That might explain why we love those who make us laugh.

Of course we don’t think much about laughing in the present day. We simply enjoy it as an uplifting experience and for the sense of well-being it brings.

Evolutionarily speaking, this very human behavior may have served an important function in terms of danger awareness and self-preservation.

Even now, when faced with danger, we often react with a smile afterwards because of a sense of pure relief.The conversation

Carlo Valerio Bellieni, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Siena.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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