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Funny ha ha ~ The Rather Interesting Science of Humour

Updated on December 16, 2014

The Ancient Greeks were pretty darn funny

we begin our journey in ancient Greece, or maybe ancient China, or, er, maybe somewhere else. In fact, no-one really knows where humour first began. What we do know, however, is that some of the same jokes have been in existence for thousands of years.

Now the Ancient Greeks had to be a bit careful. They could be exiled for insulting people, so most jokes were in written form and strictly between trusted friends. Even in those early days though, sexist jokes were made against women. In the famous sexual comedy ‘Lysistrata’ by Aristophanes, the women revolted against their men and denied them sexual favours. Buffoonery to send up women was a popular past-time. And ethnic jokes were being told too, with the Greeks telling jokes at the expense of the Syrians. It is even thought that satire may have originated on the battlefield, as combatants hurled insults at each other from afar. But whatever form that early humour took, it’s fairly certain that the ancient Greeks sat around, told a few jokes and had a good old chortle together. And the jokes have been rolling ever since.

The purpose of humour

Why do we even need humour? Its very persistence through history points to some underlying biological or cultural imperative. University of Oxford Professor Robin Dunbar believes that, just like their primate cousins, humans need to carry out bonding activities with one another. Other primate species, such as chimps and gorillas, spend hours in mutual grooming, picking through each others’ fur for insects. This type of social grooming is the glue that binds groups together and prevents bust-ups. But as human societies became too large for this nit-picking to be practical, we replaced time-consuming grooming with laughter instead. And humour makes us laugh.

Laughter can defuse wrath, for example taking the heat out of an argument. So, perhaps it does act as human glue, binding societies together and keeping our most aggressive and murderous instincts in check.

However, Dr Richard Alexander of the University of Michigan has a far more sinister interpretation of the foundations of humour. He says that jokes are used to elevate the teller’s status and so enhance their chances of sexual conquest. According to him, the teller becomes dominant, whilst the listeners become submissive. He likens our happy smiles and jolly laughter to the subservient grimace of a cowering dog.

Dr Robert Provine analysed laughter in a sound laboratory and the results show that laughter is far closer to animal sounds than to human speech. The close acoustic relationship that exists between laughter and animal calls may even suggest that in human evolution, laughter preceded speech.

We can only speculate about whether laughter evolved as a social bonding device or as a neat trick to dominate others and get ahead in the mating game. But whatever the answer, we all need humour. We surround ourselves with it at the theatre, cinema, on television and in comedy clubs. In fact, almost every social conversation contains an element of humour too. But the question of what makes us laugh is really quite complex.

Comedians make us laugh

“Anyone who works is a fool. I don’t work - I merely inflict myself upon the public”, anon Comedian

The business of making us laugh

The business of making people laugh is a tear-jerking, side-splitting rollercoaster of a ride through slapstick, physical comedy, black humour and beyond. Of course, jokes don’t always equal laughter. Some jokes simply fall flat on their proverbial faces. But, whether the jokes are funny or not, we can still enjoy ourselves, because laughing itself makes us laugh. It is the reason that clubs use warm-up comedians before the big-name acts; also why canned laughter has been used on television comedies since the 1950s. It has been scientifically proven that once we are in a giddy state, we find the next thing we hear far more amusing. In fact, laughter is so contagious that it spreads just like yawning. One laughter outbreak in Tanganyika, East Africa, in 1962, rose to epidemic proportions. To try to stop it, the authorities had to close the schools and the outbreak still lasted for 6 months. So, if epidemics of laughter are possible, maybe one day there could be an even larger one, one that would spread around the world and leave us all chuckling.

Laugh and the world laughs with you

Sadly, an epidemic of that size is out of the question. Sense of humour, it seems, is very different from nation to nation. The Japanese don’t tell jokes, but they love puns and they have an ancient form of humorous storytelling called ‘rakugo’. Another Japanese form of humour which other nations may find quite alarming is subjecting people to various torture regimes on television, all in the name of entertainment. The English are renowned for their dry wit, irony and sarcasm, whilst the Americans particularly enjoy observational, physical and slapstick styles of humour. Though we might not all laugh at the same things, we all love to laugh.

No laughing matter?

Some people though are rather less keen on the effects of humour. Dictators throughout history have been terrified of humour because it can be so subversive. The Nazis, for example, persecuted comedians just for being comedians. And the North Koreans are notoriously twitchy about political satire.

Laughter is the best medicine

So, I went to the doctor and he said I’ve got hypochondria and I said, ‘Oh no, not that as well’, Tommy Cooper

Children find plenty to chuckle at. The average child laughs 400 times a day. But as adults, this drops to between 15 and 100 times. Perhaps we are all taking life too seriously? But, then again, why laugh? Well, researchers have unearthed heaps of potential benefits to human health. Professor Lee Berk discovered that laughing for an hour reduces levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine. The list of potential medical benefits is lengthy and growing all the time. There is evidence that laughter can increase the activity of T cells, natural killer cells and antibodies, all helping to strengthen the immune system and fight off diseases. Some research also suggests that it can

increase pain tolerance. But the list doesn’t end there. There is even evidence that laughing can reduce your blood pressure, ease disease symptoms and increase longevity. And when it comes to mental well-being, therapists are using humour and laughter to treat patients with depression and other mental health problems.

Lee Berk says “It’s no longer mystical. We’ve always heard that laughter is good for you, and now we’re gathering the hard, serious stuff to show why this is so” (New York Times, 1996)

So we should all be laughing more! But how can we do it?

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More laughter please

Well, you might think that in order to laugh more, we would need to surround ourselves with witty people and humorous situations, but it ain’t necessarily so. One of the most exciting new areas of research is a laughter switch which has been identified in the brain. Dr Itzhak Fried and his team at UCLA made the amazing discovery whilst operating on a female patient. The surgical team was using a probe to stimulate different parts of the patient’s brain. Quite by accident, they found a special site in the supplementary motor area of the brain which, when poked, caused immediate merriment. A small amount of stimulation raised only a smile, but greater stimulation led to peals of laughter. The girl was later asked about the experience and said she found the situation genuinely funny.

It appears that laughter, however it is induced, really is a health tonic and when we lose our ability to laugh, we are in big trouble. The inability to laugh at funny things, known as anhedonia, can be an early warning signal for clinical depression and even schizophrenia.

Do humour and the workplace mix?

It may look like I’m not doing anything, but at a cellular level I’m quite busy ~ Anon

If laughter is needed anywhere, it’s in the workplace.

A laugh a day might well keep the doctor away. And these days, many of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Humour and laughter can be mightily beneficial in the office environment. Many big companies believe that a bit of humour improves morale, teamwork and productivity. This belief is backed up by research. In fact, one large insurance company reported a 44% increase in productivity in 3 months as a result of introducing more humor into the workplace. This makes laughing in business a serious matter. There are even consultants in the United States who are employed to inject more wit into work.

I want to teach the world to laugh

Crusader Dr Madan Kataria is on a mission to spread laughter across the world. Dr Kataria is so convinced of the therapeutic effects of laughing that he has devised a method called ‘Laughter Yoga’, where humour is not even required. His sessions started in India, but quickly went global. His laughter club sessions involve a combination of yogic deep breathing and stretching exercises, then some ‘ho ho, ha ha’ exercises to warm up and get people over their initial embarrassment. Before too long, the group can’t help but start laughing for real. Dr Kataria says ‘very soon you will be laughing like a drain and the more you laugh, the better you feel.’ His laughter clubs have proved contagious, mushrooming to a jolly multitude of several thousand worldwide.

“The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings”, Robert Louis Stevenson

So, humour probably evolved to keep us humans balanced and happy. Our laughter is like a sophisticated version of chimps picking nits from each other’s fur. Forget about the exercise bike and throw away your gym shoes, because laughter is like internal jogging too. There is an increasing body of scientific evidence that laughter really is vital for physical and mental health. Sense of humour failure and lack of ability to laugh at funny things are warning signs that all is not well. As the stress levels of modern living rise, humour is more important than ever. But just imagine a world with laughter training sessions in every work place and laughter clubs in every community, where people would be happier, healthier and more productive. Perhaps we should agree a universal pact to all carry on laughing as much as possible. Then we can look forward to the rest of this new Millennium with an extremely big smile.

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