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Laugh? I Thought I'd Die!

Updated on November 3, 2011

Defining laughter is something that has stumped philosophers for over 2,000 years. However, recent research may finally be yielding some results. Laughing seems to be a natural response in some comical situations. But surprisingly some researchers claim most laughter has little to do with humor.

Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at University of Maryland in Baltimore County investigating the subject says, “It’s an instinctual survival tool for social animals, not an intellectual response to wit. It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along.”

Perhaps, Provine had a point, but in order to test their theories, other scientists conducted laboratory tests using what they referred to as “The muffin joke.” Here it is…There are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies: ‘Holy cow…a talking muffin!’

Now, some might find the joke funny and others might not. But the tests concluded it wasn’t so much the joke, but the circumstances under which it was told that determined whether subjects laughed or not. When Provine hit the streets and told the joke to passersby, most didn’t find it very funny. Next, he brought test subjects into a laboratory at the University of Maryland and had them view episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and noted comic, George Carlin routines. The results were the same.

So, once again he returned to the streets, but this time to observe laughable situations. He found 80 to 90 % of laughs came after straight lines like “I know” or “I’ll see you guys later.” However, the laughs were still weak at best. “Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. Provine goes on to explain most speakers, particularly women, did more laughing than their audience. The women used laughing as a way to punctuate their sentences. “It’s a largely involuntary process,” Provine said. “People can consciously suppress laughs, but few can make themselves laugh convincingly.”

A neuroscientist and psychologist at Washington State University, Jaak Panksepp, has also been researching the topic, only with primates and other mammals. He has observed chimpanzees chase and tickle one another as they were playing and discovered even lab rats like to be tickled.

According to Panksepp, when rats are stimulated in this manner they emit a chirp. Of course, it’s inaudible without an ultrasonic listening device. In fact, they keep coming back for more. Professor Panksepp says “Primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction.” Laughter can also be used cruelly to mock and insult others, but for the most part laughing is a way to become part of group and make friends.

So, how does this all relate to the muffin joke? It was conducted by psychologists at the Florida State University on undergraduate women. They were told they would be participating in interviews studying their spending habits and there would also be a cash prize awarded to a few of the participants. A few would be conducting interviews while others would answer questions. The interviewer was more or less put in a position of authority, the others represented the rank and file. It was revealed the interviewees laughed more often at the muffin joke.

This was followed by yet another experiment. Each watched the muffin joke being told on videotape by a person who would supposedly be assisting her on an assignment, making her “the boss.” Again, there would be a cash reward awarded by the designated boss. In some cases the woman viewing the video tape was designated the boss; in others she was the underling or assistant.

When the woman watching was boss, she didn’t laugh much. However, put in the position of worker she laughed much more.

These results reveal much about human psychology, but it doesn’t tell us everything about why people laugh. Provine adds "Most laughter is not in response to jokes or humor; it has to do with the evolutionary development of laughter."

Steve Wilson, a psychologist and laugh therapist says "Infants laugh almost from birth. In fact people who are born blind and deaf still laugh. So it's not a learned behavior. Humans are hardwired for laughter."

This brings us to the question why hearing other people laugh tends to make us want to laugh as well? “Laughter is social; it's not a solo activity,” says Provine. His research indicates people laugh about 30 times as much when they’re with other people."

It’s been said laughter has many health benefits. It’s also been said, “Laugh and the world will laugh with you.” So, take a prescription of laughter and call your doctor in the morning.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Oh, I don't know. Some people think I'm a rat and I like to be tickled.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      I like the bit about the rats liking being tickled and coming back for more! Who would have thought that?