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“Beyond Humor: The Intricate Dynamics Of Laughter”

Author: Katherine Chen

Editors: Jaylen Peng and Shirley Chen

Artist: Kevin Lin

When you laugh at a joke, do you find it funny, or are you just going along with it? Research has shown that laughter serves a social function, signifying to others that you wish to form a connection, rather than indicating enjoyment in a conversation. We are 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others. Laughing is found to be behaviorally contagious, meaning you are susceptible to catching a laugh from a friend and following along without even knowing why they are laughing in the first place. In this way, explaining why something is funny becomes challenging, and it’s almost like how babies contagiously learn to laugh: taught by an adult figure who laughs first.

Laughter serves as a universal vocal expression of emotion. We know it when we hear it, and this does not only revolve around humans. Laughing emerges among other species of animals as well. Non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, produce laughter similar to ours when they are tickled, playing with each other, or chasing each other. Laughter in other species may be more challenging for us to hear if the pitch is too high. When lowering the pitch, researchers found that rats will chirp while they play with each other and when they are being tickled, resembling our giggles. Thus, laughter may be a more ubiquitous behavior that stems from social bonding and about people, not jokes.

Laughter engages multiple parts of the brain and body. Psychology professor Peter Derks traced brain activity in subjects when responding to content that promoted humor. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG) that records spontaneous electrical brain activity, it was found that when a joke is heard, the left side of the cortex, responsible for language and speech, analyzes the words and structure of the joke. Then, the frontal lobe becomes very active. It primarily performs executive functions such as interpreting social-emotional responses. The right hemisphere follows by carrying out the intellectual analysis required to understand the joke. The brainwave activity then spreads to the sensory processing area of the occipital lobe resting in the back of the brain, responsible for processing visual signals. If the motor cortex happens to be stimulated, there will also be physical responses to the joke, such as the guffaws, snorts, or chuckles that we recognize as laughter.

But in particular, one region of the brain stands out when it comes to laughter. In a study conducted back in 1998, it was discovered that there is a small 2cm by 2cm area on the left superior frontal gyrus (part of the frontal lobe). In this study, electrical stimulation was applied to 85 different sites of the brain on a 16-year-old girl named “A.K.”, who was suffering from seizures due to epilepsy, to figure out where the seizures originated. Each time this small area was stimulated, laughter was produced consistently, and she felt a sense of “merriment or mirth”, in other words, high-spiritedness. It proved this area of the brain to be extremely important for laughter.

Laughter appears to have physiological benefits. As your oxygen intake increases when you laugh, it can promote the activity of your heart, lungs, and muscles. Laughter gives you a pain-killing sensation as it lowers adrenaline levels and, over time, replaces the stress hormone cortisol with other chemicals. One such is the release of natural endorphins, the same chemicals that can give you a “runner’s high” and make you feel happy. In this way, relaxation follows, and our fight or flight response is inhibited. In fact, under mental health, laughing therapy derives its foundation from these concepts, teaching people how to laugh at things that might not typically evoke laughter and employing humor as a coping mechanism for difficult situations. When we laugh, the cells that combat tumors and viruses increase, and so do T-cell levels that help your immune response and B cells that make antibodies. This results in the enhancement of beneficial immune indicators. Hence, there is a kernel of truth in the sayings “laughter is the best medicine” and “laugh to boost your immune system.”

But why do we laugh? Gelotologists, people who study humor and laughter, propose various explanations for why we laugh. For example, in the incongruity theory, surprise triggers laughter. There is a disconnect between what we expect and the realities that take place, shifting away from boring and predictable behaviors. The relief theory states that we find certain situations humorous because they help us cope with stressful conditions, like comedic relief. Additionally, the superiority theory is when we laugh at past versions of ourselves or the misfortunes of others out of a sense of superiority. This type of humor tends to fall on ridiculing others. Thus, there is no such thing as fake laughter; it always serves a purpose. Laugan, an essential aspect of our daily lives, remains a powerful force that binds us, uplifts our spirits, and supports overall well-being.

 

Citations:

Brain, Marshall. “How Laughter Works.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 8 Mar.

2023, science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/emotions/laughter3.htm.

“Do Animals Laugh?” Discover Wildlife, BBC Wildlife Magazine, 29 Sept. 2022,

www.discoverwildlife.com/animal-facts/do-animals-laugh.

Green, Hank, director. YouTube, SciShow, 10 Sept. 2013, https://youtu.be/Ov-kXSS1_yc?

si=qplcUzcAjhliEG1Q. Accessed 2 Nov. 2023.

Hunt, Katie. “The Science of Laughter and Why It’s Good for Us.” CNN, Cable News

Network, 1 July 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/07/01/health/science-of-laughter-scn-

wellness/index.html.

“Laughter and the Brain.” Neuroscience For Kids, faculty.washington.edu/chudler/laugh.html.

Accessed 2 Nov. 2023.

Stierwalt, Sabrina. “Why Do We Laugh?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 9 Feb. 2020,

www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-

laugh/#:~:text=Laughter%20can%20increase%20your%20oxygen,even%20relieve

%20pain%20or%20stress.

Turner, Victoria. “Why You Laugh When It’s Not Even Funny.” UCSF Synapse, 8 Jan. 2023,

synapse.ucsf.edu/articles/2023/01/08/why-you-laugh-when-its-not-even-funny.

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