Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Science of Laughter

My interest in happiness studies, and comedy, includes a curiosity about laughter. We all know it's healthy and relaxing to laugh, and that we adults don't do enough of it. A friend of mine is a humor therapist who says we should laugh even if something isn't funny: the stomach doesn't know the difference.

Whether we can enjoy a good belly laugh alone, with no incentive, is debatable. This is the area of study undetaken by Robert Provine, who has been recording human laughter for years. This comes from a piece in Mental Floss by Judy Dutton.

Provine finds that babies laugh about 300 times a day whereas adults on 20 times. His theory is that, as we grow up, it's not just humor that's involved but bonding: laughter is a social lubricant. No wonder we tend to laugh 30 times more often in the presence of others than when alone. (Consider the canned laughter on TV.)

Laughter is really contagious, he finds: hearing a laugh activates the brain's premotor cortex, preparing the face muscles to smile and laugh in return. Provine is a scientist who approaches his subject with academic seriousness.

Although scornful laughter can be harmful, most laughter, even if humor is not directly involved, is a natural bodily function. And we don't do enough of it: so much for the science of laughter.

Isn't there more to it? My question, to which I have no immediate answer, is: does laughter cause happiness or come from happiness, or is happiness irrelevant? Is laughing really contagious, or does one have to be in a relaxed, receptive (happy) state of mind before joining with others in laughing?

It's one of those seemingly simple, basic human activities that is anything but simple. It seems to me that the mind perceives a sense of the absurd or incongruous and the body responds. But then I am talking about comedy, not laughter in isolation.

I would welcome responses from readers: Thanks.

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