Why are we laughing?  New study suggests it could be a survival strategy

Why are we laughing? New study suggests it could be a survival strategy

A woman in labor is having a terrible time and suddenly screams, “I shouldn’t! I couldn’t! I couldn’t! I can’t! I can’t!”

“Don’t worry,” said the doctor. “It’s just contractions.”

So far, several theories have sought to explain what makes something funny enough to make us laugh. These include transgression (something forbidden), perforation of a sense of arrogance or superiority (mockery), 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 any other conclusions could be drawn.

After sifting through more than 100 articles, my study yielded a new possible explanation: Laughter is a tool that nature may have provided to help us survive.

I reviewed research articles on theories of humor that provided important insights into three areas: the physical characteristics of laughter, the brain centers related to laughter production, and the health benefits of laughter.

This represented over 150 papers that provided evidence for important characteristics of the conditions that make humans laugh.

By organizing all the theories into specific areas, I was able to condense the laughter process into three main stages: bewilderment, resolution, and a potential all-clear signal, as I will explain.

This raises the possibility that laughter may have 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 for explaining humor-motivated laughter, but it’s not enough.

In this case, laughter is not a pervasive feeling that things are out of step or inconsistent. It’s about finding yourself in a specific situation that subverts our expectations of normalcy.

For example, if you see a tiger wandering down a city street, it may seem incongruous, but it’s not comical, on the contrary, it would be terrifying. But if the tiger rolls around like a ball, it becomes comical.

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The animated anti-hero Homer Simpson makes us laugh when he falls from the roof of his house and bounces like a ball, or when he tries to “strangle” his son Bart, eyes wide and tongue flapping like it was rubber.

They are examples of the human experience turning into an exaggerated, cartoon version of the world where anything – especially ridiculousness – can happen.

But to be funny, the event must also be seen as harmless. We laugh because we recognize that the tiger or Homer never hurt others, nor hurt themselves, because their worlds aren’t real.

So we can reduce laughter to a three-step process. First, he needs a situation that seems strange and induces a feeling of incongruity (bewilderment or panic).

Second, the worry or stress that the incongruous situation has caused needs to be resolved and overcome (resolution). Third, the actual release of laughter acts as a clear siren to alert passers-by (relief) that they are safe.

Laughter may well be a signal that people have used for millennia to show others that a fight-or-flight response is unnecessary and that the perceived threat has passed.

This is why laughter is often contagious: it unites us, makes us more sociable, signals the end of fear or worry. Laughter is an affirmation of life.

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We can translate this directly to the 1936 film Modern Times, where Charlie Chaplin’s comic tramp character obsessively fastens bolts in a factory like a robot instead of a man.

It makes us laugh because we subconsciously want to show others that the disturbing spectacle of a man reduced to a robot is a fiction. He is a human being, not a machine. There is no need to be alarmed.

How humor can be effective

Similarly, the joke at the beginning of this article begins with a scene from normal life, then turns into something a little strange and confusing (the woman with the incongruous behavior), but which we eventually realize that he is not serious and ultimately very comical (the double meaning of the doctor’s answer induces relief), triggering laughter.

As I have shown in a previous study on the human behavior of crying, laughter has great importance for the physiology of our body.

Like crying – and chewing, breathing or walking – laughter 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. The release of laughter breaks up the stress or tension of a situation and floods the body with relief.

Humor is often used in hospital settings to help patients recover, as studies of clown therapy have shown.

Humor can also improve blood pressure and immune defenses, and help overcome anxiety and depression.

The research reviewed in my review also showed that humor is important in teaching and is used to emphasize concepts and thoughts.

The humor associated with the course material sustains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment. In a teaching setting, humor also reduces anxiety, improves participation and increases motivation.

love and laughter

Examining this laughter data also helps to hypothesize why people fall in love with someone because “they make me laugh.” It’s not just about being funny. It could be something more complex.

If someone else’s laughter provokes our own, then that person is signaling that we can relax, we are safe – and that creates trust.

If our laughter is triggered by their jokes, it has the effect of overcoming fears caused by a strange or unfamiliar situation. And if someone’s ability to be funny inspires us to push past our fears, we’re more attracted to them. This could explain why we love those who make us laugh.

In contemporary times, of course, we do not hesitate to laugh. We simply enjoy it as an uplifting experience and for the sense of well-being it brings.

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

Even now, if we are faced with danger, we often react afterwards by laughing out of a sense of pure relief.

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

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

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