How laughter unites the world
Here’s a piece of research that might leave you tickled: laughter is a universal language, according to new research. The study, conducted with people from Britain and Namibia, suggests that basic emotions such as amusement, anger, fear and sadness are shared by all humans. Everybody shares the vast majority of their genetic make-up with each other, meaning that most of our physical characteristics are similar. We share other attributes, too, such as having complex systems of communication to convey our thoughts, feelings and the intentions of those around us, and we are able to express a wide range of emotions through language, sounds, facial expressions and posture. However, the way that we communicate is not always the same – for example, people from different cultures may not understand the same words and phrases or body language. In an attempt to find out if certain emotions are universal, researchers led by Professor Sophie Scott from UCL (University College London) have studied whether the sounds associated with emotions such as happiness, anger, fear, sadness, disgust and surprise are shared by different cultures. The results of their study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, the University of London Central Research Fund and UCL, are published today in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’.
They provide further evidence that such emotions form a set of basic, evolved functions that are shared by all cultures. Dr Disa Sauter studied people from Britain and from the Himba, a group of over 20 000 people living in small settlements in northern Namibia, as part of her PhD research at UCL. In the very remote settlements, where the data for the present study were collected, the individuals live completely traditional lives, with no electricity, running water, formal education or any contact with people from other groups. Participants in the study listened to a short story based around a particular emotion, for example, how a person is very sad because a relative of theirs had died recently. At the end of the story they heard two sounds – such as crying and of laughter – and were asked to identify which of the two sounds reflected the emotion being expressed in the story. The British group heard sounds from the Himba and vice versa. “People from both groups seemed to find the basic emotions – anger, fear, disgust, amusement, sadness and surprise – the most easily recognisable,” says Professor Scott, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. “This suggests that these emotions – and their vocalisations – are similar across all human cultures.” The findings support previous research which showed that facial expressions of these basic emotions are recognised
across a wide range of cultures. Despite the considerable variation in human facial musculature, the facial muscles that are essential to produce the basic emotions are constant across individuals, suggesting that specific facial muscle structures have likely evolved to allow individuals to produce universally recognisable emotional expressions. One positive sound was particularly well recognised by both groups of participants: laughter. Listeners from both cultures agreed that laughter signified amusement, exemplified as the feeling of being tickled. “Tickling makes everyone laugh – and not just humans,” says Dr Sauter, who tested the Himba and British participants. “We see this happen in other primates such as chimpanzees, as well as other mammals. This suggests that laughter has deep evolutionary roots, possibly originating as part of playful communication between young infants and mothers. “Our study supports the idea that laughter is universally associated with being tickled and reflects the feeling of enjoyment of physical play.” Previous studies have shown that smiling is universally recognised as a signal of happiness, raising the possibility that laughter is the auditory equivalent, both communicating a state of enjoyment. However, explains Professor Scott, it is possible that laughter and smiles are in fact quite different types of signal, with smiles functioning as a signal of generally positive social intent, whereas laughter may be a more specific emotional signal, originating in play.
Not all positive sounds were easily recognisable to both cultures, however. Some, such as the sound of pleasure or achievement appear not to be shared across cultures, but are instead specific to a particular group or region. The researchers believe this may be due to the function of positive emotions, which facilitate social cohesion between group members. Such bonding behaviour may be restricted to in-group members with whom social connections are built and maintained. However, it may not be desirable to share such signals with individuals who are not members of one’s own cultural group. news from wellcome.ac.uk – Laughter is an audible expression or the appearance of happiness, or an inward feeling of joy (laughing on the inside). It may ensue (as a physiological reaction) from jokes, tickling, and other stimuli. Strong laughter can sometimes bring an onset of tears or even moderate muscular pain; however, it is in most cases a very pleasant sensation. Laughter is found among various animals, as well as in humans. Among the human species, it is a part of human behaviour regulated by the brain, helping humans clarify their intentions in social interaction and providing an emotional context to conversations. Laughter is used as a signal for being part of a group — it signals acceptance and positive
interactions with others. Laughter is sometimes seemingly contagious, and the laughter of one person can itself provoke laughter from others as a positive feedback. This may account in part for the popularity of laugh tracks in situation comedy television shows. Scientifically speaking, laughter is caused by the epiglottis constricting the larynx, causing respiratory upset. The study of humor and laughter, and its psychological and physiological effects on the human body is called gelotology. Laughter is an audible expression or appearance of happiness, or an inward feeling of joy or humor (laughing on the inside). It may ensue (as a physiological reaction) from jokes, tickling, and other stimuli. Strong laughter can sometimes bring an onset of tears or even moderate muscular pain. Recently researchers have shown infants as early as 17 days old have vocal laughing sounds or laughter. Early Human Development 2006This conflicts with earlier studies indicating that infants usually start to laugh at about four months of age. Robert R. Provine, Ph.D. has spent decades studying laughter. In his interview for WebMD, he indicated “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same
way.” Everyone can laugh. Babies have the ability to laugh before they ever speak. Children who are born blind and deaf still retain the ability to laugh. Provine argues that “Laughter is primitive, an unconscious vocalization.” And if it seems you laugh more than others, Provine argues that it probably is genetic. In a study of the “Giggle Twins,” two exceptionally happy twins were separated at birth and not reunited until 43 years later. Provine reports that “until they met each other, neither of these exceptionally happy ladies had known anyone who laughed as much as she did.” They reported this even though they both had been brought together by their adoptive parents, whom they indicated were “undemonstrative and dour.” Provine indicates that the twins “inherited some aspects of their laugh sound and pattern, readiness to laugh, and perhaps even taste in humor.” Norman Cousins, who suffered from arthritis, developed a recovery program incorporating megadoses of Vitamin C, along with a positive attitude, love, faith, hope, and laughter induced by Marx Brothers films. “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he reported. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another
pain-free interval.” He wrote about these experiences in several books. Research has noted the similarity in forms of laughter among various primates (humans, gorillas, orang-utans…), suggesting that laughter derives from a common origin among primate species, and has subsequently evolved in each species. Modern neurophysiology states that laughter is linked with the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which produces endorphins after a rewarding activity. Research has shown that parts of the limbic system are involved in laughter. The limbic system is a primitive part of the brain that is involved in emotions and helps us with basic functions necessary for survival. Two structures in the limbic system are involved in producing laughter: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The December 7, 1984 Journal of the American Medical Association describes the neurological causes of laughter as follows: “Although there is no known ‘laugh center’ in the brain, its neural mechanism has been the subject of much, albeit inconclusive, speculation. It is evident that its expression depends on neural paths arising in close association with the telencephalic and diencephalic centers concerned with respiration. Wilson considered the mechanism to be in the region of the mesial thalamus, hypothalamus, and subthalamus. Kelly and
co-workers, in turn, postulated that the tegmentum near the periaqueductal grey contains the integrating mechanism for emotional expression. Thus, supranuclear pathways, including those from the limbic system that Papez hypothesised to mediate emotional expressions such as laughter, probably come into synaptic relation in the reticular core of the brain stem. So while purely emotional responses such as laughter are mediated by subcortical structures, especially the hypothalamus, and are stereotyped, the cerebral cortex can modulate or suppress them.” A positive link has been found between laughter and a healthy function of blood vessels with laughter causing such tissues that form using the inner lining of blood vessels, the endothelium, to dilate or expand such to increase blood flow. Common causes for laughter are sensations of joy and humor, however other situations may cause laughter as well. A general theory that explains laughter is called the relief theory. Sigmund Freud summarized it in his theory that laughter releases tension and “psychic energy”. This theory is one of the justifications of the beliefs that laughter is beneficial for one’s health. This theory explains why laughter can be as a coping mechanism for when one is upset, angry or sad. Philosopher John Morreall theorizes that human laughter may have its biological origins as a kind of shared expression of relief at the passing of danger. Friedrich
Nietzsche, by contrast, suggested laughter to be a reaction to the sense of existential loneliness and mortality that only humans feel. For example, this is how this theory works in the case of humor: a joke creates an inconsistency, the sentence appears to be not relevant, and we automatically try to understand what the sentence says, supposes, doesn’t say, and implies; if we are successful in solving this ‘cognitive riddle’, and we find out what is hidden within the sentence, and what is the underlying thought, and we bring foreground what was in the background, and we realize that the surprise wasn’t dangerous, we eventually laugh with relief. Otherwise, if the inconsistency is not resolved, there is no laugh, as Mack Sennett pointed out: “when the audience is confused, it doesn’t laugh” (this is the one of the basic laws of a comedian, called “exactness”). It is important to note that the inconsistency may be resolved, and there may still be no laugh. Due to the fact that laughter is a social mechanism, we may not feel like we are in danger, however, the physical act of laughing may not take place. In addition, the extent of the inconsistency (timing, rhythm, etc) has to do with the amount of danger we feel, and thus how intense or long we laugh. This explanation is also confirmed by modern neurophysiology
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