More Than Mirth: Probing the Science of Laughter

The most common
word in my text message repertoire isn’t actually a word, but an acronym: lol. Laugh out
loud. I’ve sent thousands of lol’s, lolol’s, lolz and lulz. In my
after-school instant message days, I thought I was alternative and used “lawl.”
Not proud.

The lol lingers,
as it always has, in the background of my texts, a filler I add almost automatically. And though it’s easy to diminish its importance when I use it so
casually, I have to wonder why I bother to keep using the acronym. It no longer
has meaning other than to signal an action I’m not really even doing. Then
again, I don’t have to really be laughing—I just have to convey the idea that
I’m laughing to the person I’m messaging. The lol has been around for decades
(millennia in Internet Time), yet it still hangs around in my messages.

Why do I want to tell somebody I’m laughing,
though I never actually lol when I’m reading or writing a text message? Perhaps
it is because laughter is a better social lubricant than alcohol, a tool we college students use quite a lot to help navigate our relationships with others. Scientific
researchers interested in laughter have found that naturally occurring laughter
happens at a rate of about five times per 10 minutes. So my amount of loling reflects
a social reality: The average person laughs about once every two minutes.

That sort of
ubiquity raises some intrigue. As it turns out, laughter is shared throughout humanity and among other mammals (chimps, gorillas and rats have all be
shown to laugh). It’s a form of communication that does not have to be learned, as
real language does—the only globally recognized noise that humans can make
with their vocal cords. 

Cross-cultural studies have found that many people
across the world can identify a few basic facial
expressions of emotion—anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness—even
people with almost no Western contact. But there’s only one human sound that can be reliably tied to an emotion:
laughter. 

And although this
hasn’t been proven systematically, I’d venture a guess that laughter is also
the only emotional expression communicated once every two minutes in
conversation. Think of your spontaneous two-minute chats when you cross paths
with an acquaintance on the way to class. With how many people do you share an ewww of disgust? Or a growl of anger? How
many casual encounters end with a mutual sharing of mirth, either genuinely or
as a way to end the conversation without extended awkwardness?

Laughter permeates
almost all of human interactions, even the negative ones, and
its application is incredibly powerful. In happy bantering, laughter conveys
understanding and a willingness to share emotions with one another. In grief, it
gives an outlet through which to release often unbearable amounts of sadness. In
moments of anger, it can instantaneously diffuse the air’s tension. In polite
exchanges, it masks underlying discomfort. It’s a chameleon expression, serving
our social needs as we need it.

Almost everything
I’ve discussed so far has essentially been the philosophy of laughter. But what
about the cold, hard science? Laughter is a fairly under-researched topic, but
some researchers have taken interest in the roots of laughter.

Physically,
laughter is a pretty odd event. When we use our mouth to speak, the muscles
controlling our ribs work in fine coordination with the muscles of our larynx.
Our rib muscles squeeze to force out small puffs of air while our throat
muscles change the shape of our vocal cords to make them vibrate in extremely
finely tuned patterns, which other humans recognize as words. 

In laughter, all
bets are off. The intercostal (rib) muscles contract violently and shoot out
air without giving a rip what our brain or body wants them to do, providing the
physiological basis for uncontrollable laughing that continues until it hurts.

Up in the brain,
genuine laughter is believed to cause the release of those feel-good molecules
called endorphins, the ones that are supposed to come after a long jog (I’ve
never felt ’em). These endorphins are the brain’s own pain-killers, and indeed it has been demonstrated that people show elevated pain thresholds after
periods of laughter. 

Some evidence also suggests that brain regions involved in
mentalization, or the process of considering the mental state of oneself and
others, are also activated when perceiving laughter. Basically, we hear it and
try to figure out what it means. Is that person laughing nervously? Did they
think my joke was funny or are they faking it to impress me? Are they laughing with me or at me? Our interpretation of laughter can radically change its
meaning.

Taken together,
these pieces of evidence point to laughter as an evolutionarily designed social
lubricant. Laughter is an emotional thread that all humans share. Sometimes it
tells us who the fakes are by exposing people who laugh for ulterior motives.
But more often than not, laughter brings us together, puts us on the same page and causes two or more people to think and feel as one. When said like that,
all my lol’s don’t seem so laughable after all.

Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 is a neuroscience major who also co-hosts the radio program Reality Check, which explores the intersection of science and the spirit. In his spare time, he is an avid writer of spoken-word poetry. 

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