What's So Funny?: The Psychology Behind Jokes and Laughter
The Power of Contagious Laughter. If you don't at least smile at this, stop and make sure you have a pulse :-)
"So, a rabbi and a priest walk into a bar..."
"Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"Take my wife, please!"
Laughter is universal. it has nothing to do with what language we speak, which culture we were raised in, or what our religious faith is. We all laugh. Psychologists have compared laughter to speaking in tongues: we can't control what we laugh at, or the sounds that come out of our mouth. All we know is that we laugh, and that laughter transcends all of our differences.
Scientists have studied laughter by going out into public places and observing people in social settings, by searching for "the perfect joke" and studying its effect on the brain of its recipient, and by hooking people up to an MRI machine and studying brain activity as they listen to both real and "fake" (jokes not meant to funny) jokes. What they've discovered about laughter is a bit surprising. And it may explain why cerain people make us laugh easier than others can.
Four Facts About Laughter
1. Laughter varies by age and gender. Children laugh 400 times per day, as opposed to adults, who only laugh 15 times per day. Any parent has experienced this. Kids laugh at the weirdest things. But laughter is part of their cognitive development. Kids who tell and listen to jokes are learning about language, connections, and irony. Those who have a well-developeds sense of humor have a better outlook on life and an easier time interacting with their peers. (Check out Hub author Lela Davidson's great hubs about jokes for kids to get your little one laughing.)
Women laugh more than men: about 126% more, according to an article published in Psychology Today.
Men are the biggest laugh-getters, a trait that starts early in childhood. Most likely, if you think back to the class clown in elementary or middle school, it was a boy. What makes women the laughers and men the comedians? That question is still up in the air. As we learn more about the science of laughter, hopefully the answer will unfold.
2. Laughter is a social phenomenon. Ever notice that you laugh more when watching a funny movie with your pals than you do when you watch the same movie by yourself? Psychologists have studied this phenomenon, as well as the phenomenon known as "contagious laughter" to determine why it is that we laugh more with others. It comes down to communication. Laughter is a wordless, un-fakeable demonstration of human emotion. It binds us as maybe no other force on Earth can. Television producers of the 1950s understood this before anyone studied it---they started setting sitcoms to laugh tracks to make the home audience laugh and enjoy the show more. It's also why Leno, Letterman, and Conan tape before a live studio audience. The audience laughs, and we find ourselves laughing along with them.
3. Different types of jokes affect different parts of the brain. The part of the brain that reacts to jokes is the medial ventral prefrontal cortex, which is where cognitive devlopment, personality development, and determining correct social behavior occurs. However, different types of jokes trigger different parts of the brain as we process them. Puns take one path to the prefrontal cortex, for example, while story jokes take a completely different neurological path. This explains why people who have experienced brain trauma may find one type of joke funny, but find absolutely no humor in an equally funny joke of a different genre, or why they may lose their sense of humor all together.
4. Laughter has very little to do with the joke itself. In studying laughter in social settings, scientists observed an interesting phenomenon: the joke itself was the least important factor in instigating laughter. In fact, statements like "well, hello yourself," or "yeah, that's what I thought" were more likely to get a laugh than an actual joke was. The larger the group, the more each person in the group laughed. Women tend to laugh more heartily in the presence of men they are attracted to than they do in the presence of other women or men who don't attract them. What this tells us is that while a joke can be a great icebreaker, what matters more is the interaction and relationship between people. This also explains that one guy you know who tells the dumbest jokes but never fails to be the life of the party.
The Great Unifier
All of the research boils down to this inescapable fact: humans are, and are designed to be, social beings. Laughter is a reflex, just like the startle reflex, gag reflex, of the reflex of automatically pulling your hand away from a hot stove. Laughter is irresistible, contagious, and binds us through its universality. It transcends the issues and differences that divide us. In the end, we're all the same, laughing at the same dumb knock-knock joke as the next guy. Maybe that's really the reason laughter is the best medicine.
For more about Gary Larson and "The Far Side," check out Stephicks68's hub, "Gary Larson's Far Side Cartoon."
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