The Laughter Reflex
Laughing is fun. We all turn to comedians and comedy TV shows, tell jokes at dinner, or read comic strips because we enjoy laughing. If you laughed today, you have lowered your blood pressure, boosted your immune system, released "feel good" endorphins in your brain, and most likely facilitated social bonding with others.
It's also natural and universal, a behavioral response that has been observed in every human culture. The phenomenon has also been seen in the animal community. Dogs and rats have shown laughter tendencies when placed in playful social backgrounds. Chimpanzees laugh when tickled. But humans are the only species known to laugh from purley visula or auditory stimuli.
The first time I ever really thought about laughter was when I took a psychology class in high school. Laughter was just once of the puzzles of human behavior that piqued my interest. The laughter instinct allows to enjoy the experience of watching or listening to absurdities. Why on earth would we have evolved to appreciate the absurd? Some theories claim that laughter evolved as a tool of assertion. A tribe leader could use mockery to ridicule anyone he felt threatened by, and the laughter of his fellow hunter gatherers was implicit approval that helped soldify his position while undermining that of his target. And in fact, we see this trend in the modern world as well. Humor is used every day to mock or belittle.
But the overwhelming majority of laughter is used for prosocial behavior. We all know that laughter is more powerful, more hearty, when we are with people. There's a reason for this; one of the purposes of laughter is to forge connections with people, and there's more ideal environment for that than enjoying the company of others while you yourself are at ease. There's no question that you feel closer to someone when you're in on a joke together. That's no surprise to us after a lifetime of socializing, but why is laughter the tool for the job and not some other reflex?
A team of researchers from Maryland University set out to answer this question. To investigate the evolutionary history of laughter, they observed laughter tendencies in dozens of primates, from chimpanzees. They concluded that humans and promates all inherited the laughter reflex from an ancestor living at least ten million years ago, and they offered an interesting hypothesis for laughter. Laughing, they argued, is behavior rooted not in joy, but rather relief. When an unfamiliar sight, sound or person is revealed to be non-threatening, laughter is often the response, especially in a group.
This might seem strange, but think of the anticpation or apprehension you might feel while a joke is being told. When the punchline is delivered, and the story or message isn't serious, the sensation of a potential threat or serious news being neutralized can lead to laughter.
That's just one theory, and it may take many more studies and investigations before a dominant explanation emerges. In the meantime, you will probably laugh more than a dozen times each day as you hear jokes, imagine ludicrous situations and listen to witty one-liners. We will be laughing tomorrow. From Beijing to Buenos Aires, from New York City to the most rural village in Afghanistan, we will be taking pleasure in the ridiculous point of view and bonding over the farcical failures of ourselves and our companions. It's for an evolutionary reason, maybe because the only way we could possibly cope is to embrace the absurdities of our lives.
And I can't tell whether that should be scary or funny.