See also: Theories of humor Common causes for laughter are sensations of joy and humor ; however, other situations may cause laughter as well. A general theory that explains laughter is called the relief theory. Sigmund Freud summarized it in his theory that laughter releases tension and "psychic energy". Philosopher John Morreall theorizes that human laughter may have its biological origins as a kind of shared expression of relief at the passing of danger.

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American Scientist What began as an isolated fit of laughter and sometimes crying in a group of to year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities.

The epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of schools. It lasted for six months. The Tanganyikan laughter epidemic is a dramatic example of the infectious power of laughter - something that many of us may have experienced in our own lives. Many readers will be familiar with the laugh tracks of television situation comedies - attempts to stimulate contagious laughter in viewers -and the difficulty of extinguishing their own "laugh jags," fits of nearly uncontrollable laughter.

Have you ever been overcome by a comparable urge to chant "hello-hello-hello? Clearly, laughter is a powerful and pervasive part of our lives - an important component of that biobehavioral bedrock of our species known as human nature. Yet aside from a general appreciation that laughter is good for us -"the best medicine" - and is somehow associated with humor, we know little about laughter itself.

My approach to understanding laughter is one that a visiting extraterrestrial might take were it to encounter a group of laughing human beings. What would the visitor make of the large bipedal animals emitting paroxysms of sound from a toothy vent in their faces? A reasonable approach would be to describe the simplest and most obvious aspects of the noisy behavior: its physical characteristics, the rules that govern its expression, characteristics of the animals emitting the sounds such as gender , the mechanism of sound production, and whether similar sounds are made by related species.

To Earthlings this naturalistic approach is known as ethology - a biologically oriented scientific discipline devoted to understanding what animals do and how and why they do it. Ethologists treat behavior as an evolutionary adaptation. The species-wide distribution of laughter and its stereotypical and simple structure suggests that the behavior has strong genetic and neurophysiological bases - qualities attractive to those who wish to understand the mechanisms and natural history of behavior.

During the past eight years I have been observing human laughter in various natural habitats - shopping malls, classrooms, sidewalks, offices and cocktail parties - with the investigative spirit of our hypothetical alien.

Observing everyday behavior in these settings has provided an opportunity to appreciate laughter as a social vocalization of the human animal. These studies have produced some unexpected insights into the phenomenon of human laughter - its social nature, the lawful relationship between laughter and speech, gender differences and the biological basis of contagion.

Laugh Structure One of my first goals was to describe the sonic structure of human laughter. This proved to be more difficult than! Like other spontaneous acts, laughter often disappears when one attempts to observe it, especially in the laboratory. Some unconventional approaches were called for. Although I could occasionally elicit laughter from friends and colleagues during playful conversations, I was often forced to engage in shameless hamming something that graduate school did not prepare me for.

One of the most productive approaches was to encounter people in public places and simply ask them to laugh. The request was usually answered with a burst of laughter. About half of the laughing subjects reported that they could not laugh on command. Indeed, we have much less conscious control over laughter than over speech. It is easy to say "ha-ha-ha," but difficult to laugh on cue.

We do not "speak" laughter. Here the laughs were analyzed with a sound spectrograph, a device that translates a sound into an image that reveals the changes in frequency and intensity of the sound over time. Laboratory workers gave us quizzical looks but politely refrained from asking about the origins of the sounds.

The sound spectra revealed the distinct signature of laughter. A laugh is characterized by a series of short vowel-like notes syllables , each about 75 milliseconds long, that are repeated at regular intervals about milliseconds apart. A specific vowel sound does not define laughter, but similar vowel sounds are typically used for the notes of a given laugh. For example, laughs have the structure of "ha-ha-ha" or "ho- ho-ho," but not "ha-ho-ha-ho. Try to simulate a "ha-ho-ha-ho" laugh - it should feel quite unnatural.

When there are variations in the notes, they most often involve the first or last note in a sequence. Thus, "cha-ha-ha" or "ha-ha-ho" laughs are possible variants. The explosively voiced blasts of a laugh have a strong harmonic structure, with each harmonic being a multiple of a low fundamental frequency. The harmonic structure is revealed in a sound spectrogram by the evenly spaced stacks of short horizontal lines in the spectrum, the lowest of which is the fundamental frequency.

Given their higher-pitched voices, it is not surprising that the laughter of females has a higher fundamental frequency about hertz than male laughter about hertz.

Whether it is a deep belly laugh or a high-pitched titter, however, all human laughter is a variation of this basic form. It is this structure that allows us to recognize laughter in spite of individual differences. The notes and internote intervals carry most of the information that allows us to identify a sound as laughter. If the sounds between laugh notes are edited out of a tape recording - leaving the notes separated by intervals of silence - a laugh still sounds normal.

The internote time interval carries information, but the internote expiratory sounds do not. If the notes are removed from a recording and the gaps between intervals are closed, all that remains of laughter is a long, breathy sigh. The stereotypic structure of a laugh is, at least in part, a result of the limitations of our vocal apparatus.

It is difficult to laugh with abnormally long note durations, such as "haaa-haaa-haaa," or abnormally short durations much less than 75 milliseconds in length. Likewise, normal note durations with abnormally long or short internote intervals do not occur. Try to produce a natural laugh with a long internote interval, such as "hahaha. The structural simplicity of a laugh is also suggested by its reversibility. A short segment of laughter -" ha-ha-ha" - played backward on a tape recorder still sounds rather like "ha-ha-ha.

Yet one aspect of a laugh that is not symmetrical is its loudness. Laughter is characterized by a decrescendo in which the laugh notes that are late in a sequence are usually lower in amplitude than earlier notes presumably because we run out of air. Recordings of laughter played backward produce a bizarre-sounding crescendo. Chimpanzee Laughter There is a common misperception that laughter is exclusive to human beings.

From at least the time of Darwin, however, it has been known that chimpanzees and other great apes perform a laugh-like vocalization when tickled or during play To pursue the details of this primate laughter, I teamed up with Kim Bard, who is nursery director and caregiver for young chimpanzees at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center in Atlanta.

Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes laughter differs in many ways from its human counterpart. The vowel-like notes of human laughter are performed by chopping a single expiration, whereas chimpanzee laughter is a breathy panting vocalization that is produced during each brief expiration and inspiration.

Unlike human laughter, the laughter of a chimpanzee lacks discrete, vowel-like notes that have sharp leading and trailing edges on sound spectra. Chimpanzee laughter has the sound and cadence of a handsaw cutting wood. The sounds of chimpanzee and human laughter are sufficiently different that without viewing the characteristic "play face" and source of stimulation such as play and tickle , naive human beings may be unable to identify the chimpanzee vocalization as laughter.

You can experience the difference in production between the two forms of laughter by placing a hand on your abdomen and comparing the abdominal pulsations of chimpanzee-like panting with the smoother act of speaking "ha-ha-ha" during a single expiration. People laugh as we speak.

If chimpanzees laugh as they speak, by producing one laugh sound per expiration and inspiration, we have identified an important and previously unrecognized constraint on the evolution of speech and language in chimpanzees and presumably other great apes. The close coupling of laughter to breathing in chimpanzees may be evidence of a more general limitation on these animals to speak. In contrast to the success of teaching hundreds of signs to chimpanzees, efforts to teach them to speak English have produced meager results.

Indeed, the inability to modulate expiratory airflow may be at least as limiting to speech as the structure of the vocal tracts of nonhuman primates. Breathy, panting laughter is probably the primal form that dates back to the common ancestor of all great apes and people. Human beings evolved their characteristic laughter after branching from an ancestor in common with chimpanzees estimated to be around six million years ago, according to DNA hybridization data.

It is noteworthy that chimpanzee laughter occurs almost exclusively during physical contact, or during the threat of such contact, during chasing games, wrestling or tickling. The individual being chased laughs the most. Although people laugh when tickled, most adult human laughter occurs during conversation, typically in the absence of physical contact. Social and Linguistic Context Laughter is a decidedly social signal, not an egocentric expression of emotion.

In the absence of stimulating media television, radio or books , people are about 30 times more likely to laugh when they are in a social situation than when they are alone. Indeed people are more likely to smile or talk to themselves than they are to laugh when they are alone.

What can we say about laughter as communication? In an attempt to gather some clues, my colleagues and I have collected observations on 1, instances of naturally occurring human laughter. Three undergraduate assistants Lisa Greisman, Tina Runyan, Michelle Bowers and I wandered various public gathering places where we eavesdropped on groups of laughing people. We carefully took note of the principals engaged in the behavior - the gender of the speaker and the audience, whether the speaker or the audience laughed and what was said immediately before the laughter.

Contrary to our expectations we found that most conversational laughter is not a response to structured attempts at humor, such as jokes or stories. Less than 20 percent of the laughter in our sample was a response to anything resembling a formal effort at humor.

Research that focuses only on the response of an audience to jokes a common laboratory scenario targets only a small subset of laughter. One of the key features of natural laughter is its placement in speech. Laughter is not randomly scattered throughout the speech stream. The speaker and the audience seldom interrupt the phrase structure of speech with laughter. In our sample of 1, laughs there were only eight interruptions of speech by laughter, all of them by the speaker.

Thus a speaker may say "You are going where? The strong and orderly relationship between laughter and speech is akin to punctuation in written communication and is called the punctuation effect. Our field study revealed other clues about laughter in human communication.

A counterintuitive finding was that the average speaker laughs about 46 percent more often than the audience. This finding reveals the limits of analyses that report only audience behavior - the typical approach of humor research - and neglect the social nature of the laughing relationship. The gender of the principals involved plays a large role in determining the amount of speaker laughter. Whether they are speakers or audiences in mixed-sex groups , females laugh more often than males. Female speakers laugh percent more than their male audience.

In contrast, male speakers laugh about 7 percent less than their female audience. Neither males nor females laugh as much to female speakers as they do to male speakers.


Robert Provine, an Authority on Laughter, Is Dead at 76

Laughter has surprisingly little to do with jokes and funny stories. It is an ancient, unconsciously controlled vocal relic that co-exists with modern speech—-a social, psychological and biological act which predates humor and is shared with our primate cousins, the great apes. With startling effect, laughter reveals why humans can talk and other apes cannot and leads to the discovery of the event essential for the evolution of human speech and language. Laughter is used as a powerful, uncensored probe into human social relationships, revealing that tickle is an important form of tactile communication, that women laugh more at men than vice-versa, that speakers laugh more than their audience, and that laughter is a social glue that draws group members into the fold. The first book to establish laughter as a topic of scientific worth, Laughter includes such esoterica as the history of holy laughter, operatic laughter, laugh records, laughing gas, canned laughter, and a description of the Tanganyikan laughter epidemic that immobilized an entire school district during


Laughter: A Scientific Investigation

He could also make you laugh. Robert Provine in an undated photo. Robert Provine was studying nerve cells for eight hours a day in a windowless lab when he made a keen observation that would alter his life, and the shape of social science: I am getting tired of this. He decided to study laughter instead, taking his methods out into the world and, through a series of studies and popular books, helping to create the modern science of humor. Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, died at 76 on Oct. His wife, Helen Weems, said the cause was complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

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