What Is Laughter, Anyway?

Most of the time, people laugh for reasons that have nothing to do with finding something funny. Food for thought next time you’re cracking up chicks at bars!

By Camille Lamb

Laughing sometimes makes no sense — just ask the poor guy in the video above, who is clearly discussing something serious but cannot stop laughing at the people with whom he’s discussing it. (To be fair, the other guy’s voice is pretty funny. And what a ridiculous language they speak!) So in trying to figure out what laughter is, we need to keep in mind that it’s not just something that happens when we see or hear something funny. In fact, studies have shown that the majority of the laughing people do has nothing to do with humor. So what is laughter? Like so many other things about humans, it’s basically a monkey strategy to avoid getting killed …

What Are Laughs, Anyway?What makes you laugh?
Millions of years ago, when we were still using our feet to power cars and domesticating dinosaurs as pets, laughter was a social cue, not a response to a great knock-knock joke. “It was a sign that you were engaging in a playful relationship, not an aggressive one,” explains Dr. Robert Provine, author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping and Beyond. “If you laughed, it was a signal that you weren’t going to attack someone.” So it’s a survival tool that we use to let people know we’re part of the group, or that there’s nothing to worry about, or that we’re not about to murder everyone in a blind rage. And that’s why  so many different kinds of things can make us laugh — from funny stuff to unfunny stuff to awkwardness to danger.

What happens to your body when you laugh?
The act of laughter requires the activation of muscle groups throughout the face and body — it’s why you can be doubled over. Meanwhile, the epiglottis, a flap of cartilage at the back of your throat that prevents you from literally inhaling your food, covers part of the opening to your windpipe. The way the air is forced out can sound very different — from loud guffaws to quiet snickers — but according to Provine, people actually tend to laugh with similar cadences. Each “ha” is about one-fifteenth of a second long, with about one-fifth of a second in between.

What Are Laughs, Anyway?Why do some people cry when they laugh?
It’s not because they’re sissies … well, sometimes it is. When you “laugh till you cry,” you’re yucking it up so violently that the lack of oxygen caused by the epiglottis blocking your windpipe activates your tear ducts. The same sort of thing would happen if you deprived yourself of oxygen by, say, covering your head in a plastic bag while masturbating. (Or so we’ve heard.)

Why do we laugh at things that aren’t funny?
Several parts of your brain work together to process sensory information that induces laughter. That makes sense when it’s a droll comment in a fussy British TV show or a YouTube vid of a dude getting nailed in the nuts by a Frisbee — but it’s more confusing when it’s one of Uncle Randy’s terrible jokes at family dinners. But again, about 80 percent of the time, your laughter has nothing to do with humor. You laugh at Uncle Randy to prevent social awkwardness. You laugh at funerals to relieve tension. You laugh at the suffering of your enemies because … well, because it’s funny.

Can laughing really make you healthier?
Not really. But happy and healthy people probably tend to laugh more. “Any health benefits are secondary to the social benefits of laughter,” Provine says. “If you’re laughing often with friends and family, it’s a sign that your life is probably going well.”

TAGS: comedy, laughing, what is laughter


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