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Live, Love, LAUGH

vcruz's picture

Laughter is considered one of the most delightful things in life, as the famous line “Live, Love, Laugh” implies. Some people even devote their lives to make people laugh and to make careers and industries out of it, such as stand-up comics, and comedy movies. However, most of the time, we experience a different type of laugh that has little to do with humor. Researches show that humorous laughs are actually a small part of all the other kinds of laugh that we experience. For instance, we can all relate to a moment in which we have experienced a nervous laugh.  This is the type of laugh that we unexpectedly experience mostly during an uncomfortable moment.  Yet, some people, this may happen more often than normal, and may even be harder to control. In this paper, I explore the reasons behind these different types of laughs, the extent to which we are able (or unable) to control them, and how much does context have to do with the laugh.

For many years, laugher has puzzled philosophers and has finally been linked to science.  Researchers have “scanned brains and tickled babies, chimpanzees and rats” [1]. In a research conducted by Professor Jaak Panksepp, from the Washington State University,  compared the human feelings caused by laugher to “an ultrasonic chirp” that rats emit and that is “inaudible to humans without special equipment”[1]. In his research, he discovered that “when [the rats are] tickled, and they like the sensation so much they keep coming back for more tickling”[1]; which is similar to when humans seek ways to laugh, like watching Jim Carrey’s movies or even tickling each other. In a New York Times article, John Tierney states that “Humans are laughing by the age of four months and then progress from tickling to the Three Stooges to more sophisticated triggers for laughter”[1].

So what is there that makes us seek laughter so much? Professor Panksepp thinks that “the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another” [1]. He also explains that “The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing not fighting” [1]. Thus, in a way, laughter serves us as a social mechanism to relate to each other in a comfortable and friendly way.

This was especially clear in a research conducted by Professor Robert R. Provine from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In his research, he spent sufficient time in social places, such as city sidewalks and suburban malls, to observe “thousands of ‘laugh episodes’” [1].  From these observations, he found that “80 percent to 90 percent of [the “laugh episodes”] came after straight lines like ‘I know’ or ‘I’ll  see you guys later’” [1]. As seen in this research, he concluded that laughing is not only a reaction to something funny or to tickling, but is also used as a way to express friendliness even in day-to-day dialogues.

This explains why often in gatherings where people most people may not know each other well, organizers plan “ice breakers” in the first part of the agenda. Fun openings are great ways of starting meetings; they are even being used in formal settings now as a way of keeping people engaged and mingling. Thus, Tierney states that laughter is “a subtle social lubricant” and that “It’s a way to make friends” [1].

Yet, it is also argued that laughter can also serve in a different social context: to establish hierarchy and as a survival method. For instance, in many instances we know of moments were a boss or someone in power makes a lame joke, and listeners who are in a lower level laugh. For example, this is showed repeatedly in episodes of FRIENDS, where Chandler, a natural comedian in the show (who interestingly, is known to respond with jokes to any awkward or uncomfortable moment), chuckles after his boss says “funny” stories. Tierney explains that “It’s not about getting the joke. It’s about getting along” [1]. He further explains that “When you’re low in the status hierarchy, you need all the allies you can find, so apparently you’re primed to chuckle  at anything even if it doesn’t do you any immediate good”[1].

Tyler F. Stillman, who conducted a different experiment in which he used a very lame joke, also agrees with this concept. His joke was:

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies: “Holly cow! A talking muffin!” [1]

He explained that, besides using this for his experiment, he has used that joke in his undergrad class and students always laugh out loud. Yet that is not what resulted at a conference “attended by some of the most senior researchers in the field,” as they heard the “lowly graduate student” telling the muffin joke, what followed was “a really uncomfortable silence. You could hear crickets” [1]. Yet, like nervous laughter, the students’ laughs were automatic reactions; the students did not necessarily force themselves to laugh to make their professor feel good. 

            Nervous laughter is also a reaction to circumstances or current emotions. It is described as “a physical reaction to stress, tension, confusion, or anxiety – just like sweaty palms or a raised heart-rate” [2]. Nervous laughter is the kind of laugh that people experience when they see someone that they are attracted to, or when they find themselves in an embarrassing moment.

            Yet there is an even more complex laugh that involves nervous laughter but is much less controllable and even creates tension in people. This is called involuntary laughter and it is considered a disorder of laughter [3]. In a research by Mendez et al., they conducted a case study on a man who, for more than two decades, “could not keep from laughing even when he did not detect any humor” [3]. They also explain that this condition affected this person’s family and friends since “the patient spent most of the day laughing, even when he felt sad. His laughter intruded in all of his conversations and was triggered by the most trivial and inconsequential stimuli” [3]. They further explain that “Only sleep provided respite from laughing” [3]. Their researches show that there are a numerous reasons why this is caused, in this man’s case it resulted in as “an injury from surgical retraction and clipping of the aneurysm<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]-->” [3].

Yet, it does not have to be a result from a brain injury; the causes for this abnormality are numerous. Involuntary laughter is “often viewed as a form of emotional dysregulation,” explains Dr. Joseph M Carver [4]. He also explains that neurological disorders can often produce this “emotional dysregulation” as well as brain injuries, such as case of the men in the research by Mendez et al.

What these studies also show is that there is a very strong connection between our emotional and neurological behaviors. Our emotions are deeply connected to the unconscious responses that we have to events. Laughing as a genuine expression of friendliness is an unconscious gesture that we have in response to interactions with others. We can politely smile even when we don’t want to, but it would be very difficult to fake a laugh and express the same genuine emotion that it naturally conveys. Similarly, nervous laughs are as well a reaction to something that triggers our emotions, whether it is due to embarrassment or having a crush on someone. Even a laughing disorder of someone laughing while being sad confirms that “disorder” of these laughs lies in the fact that laughter is not the “normal” reaction to sadness.

Yet, we can often find ourselves looking for ways to laugh in our saddest moments. Or we burst crying out of sheer happiness. Maybe there is no correct way of reacting to our emotions, laughing or crying may just be different ways of releasing these emotions. This connection between emotions and neurological reactions is one more of the ways in which the construction of our body amazes me on how it all works interconnected so perfectly.

Works Cited

1.    Tierney, John. "What's So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing." The New York Times 13 March 2007:

2.      "Stop nervous laughing from landing you in embarrasement." Hypnosis Downloads. 11 May 2009 <>.

3.      Mendez, Mario F., Tomoko V Nakawatase and Charles V. Brown. "Involuntary Laughter and Inappropriate Hilarity." The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences (1999): 253-258.

4.      Carver, Dr. Joseph M. "What Causes Inappropriate Laughing After Every Sentence?" 17 March 2008. Counselling Resource. 10 May 2009 <>.


<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]--> Aneurysm: a fluid-filled sac in the wall of an artery that can weaken the wall.


Paul Grobstein's picture

laughter and the brain

I'd buy that it serves a social function, but there's more there.  I sometimes laugh by myself.  An acknowledgement of play?