Why Do We Laugh?

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Why do we laugh? And what goes on in those brains of ours when we’re cracking up laughing after a good joke or humorous event.

understanding laughter means understanding fundamental issues about human nature.

To start with, let’s address the act of laughing itself.

Laughter is essentially a person’s physiological reaction to hearing or seeing something humorous or funny.

Brain triggers

So if we want to understand laughter, perhaps we need to go deeper, and look at what is going on in the brain. The areas that control laughing lie deep in the subcortex, and in terms of evolutionary development these parts of the brain are ancient, responsible for primal behaviours such as breathing and controlling basic reflexes. This means laughter control mechanisms are located a long way away from brain regions that developed later and control higher functions such as language or even memory.

Perhaps this explains why it is so hard to suppress a laugh, even if we know it is inappropriate. Once a laugh is kindled deep within our brains these ‘higher function’ brain regions have trouble intervening. And the reverse is true, of course, it is difficult to laugh on demand. If you consciously make yourself laugh it will not sound like the real thing – at least initially.

There is another fundamental aspect to laughing. All humans laugh, and laughter always involves a similar pattern of whooping noises. Deaf people who have never heard a sound still make laughing noises. The laughing noises produced by humans share many of the acoustic properties of speech, further evidence laughter is hijacking the brain and body apparatus that we use for breathing and talking. 

But this does not fully answer the original question. Even if we identified the precise brain areas associated with laughing, even if we were able to make someone laugh by stimulating part of their brain (which can be done), we still don’t know what makes people laugh. Yes, we know about the effect, but what about the cause, that is, the reason why we laugh in the first place?

So, what exactly is happening to our bodies when we laugh? As it turns out, the muscles of our entire face work in unison to bring about those joyous/crazy looks we have on our face when we laugh. In fact, laughter involves the contraction of fifteen different facial muscles. In addition, your breathing pattern changes, as your epiglottis partially covers your larynx, making you “gasp” for air. The most interesting physiological change that occurs are the “tears of joy” that we often experience after laughing hysterically. This is due to the activation of the tear ducts.

If we continue laughing hard for a long time, meaning that we continue gasping for air, our face turns red and our eyes begin to water due to a lack of oxygen intake (in extreme circumstances, we can even turn a hilarious shade of purple!)

Laughing is a universal human behavior, one that transcends borders of language and culture. But it’s also REALLY WEIRD. Why do we do it? The answer has less to do with humor than you might think
  • Laughter is a spontaneous reaction that occurs 30 times more often in social situations than when you’re alone
  • A good laugh can boost your immune system, rev up your circulation so your blood vessels work better, raise your endorphin levels and trigger a surge of dopamine, the “feel-good” hormone, to your brain
  • Studies show that laughter helps both children and adults learn better, and developing a better sense of humor can also be learned

To understand why we burst out laughing from time to time, let’s go back to our very beginnings. Think back to a time when fast food was literally an animal on four legs, running away from us, and we had to hunt it down to fill our bellies. At the same time, there were also animals running towards us, hunting us down to fill their bellies. At such times, our ancestors would’ve been under enormous amounts of stress while constantly trying to prolong and protect their lives. Therefore, it makes sense that when the danger finally passed, early humans shared a laugh with one another as a sign of relief!

Laughter Shifts Your Perspective

Laughter allows us to entertain the absurd and imagine alternate possibilities. It stretches our imaginations and helps us to see things from various angles. It allows you to visualize situations in a more realistic and less threatening light.

By creating psychological distance laughter allows you to feel safe when confronted with anxiety provoking life situations. Laughter allows an individual faced with an otherwise overwhelming crisis to relax and see things from a different perspective.

Laughter Prevents Heart Disease

A study at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that people with cardiac disease laughed 40-percent less at life situations than those without cardiac disease.

Laughter Boosts Your Immune System

The act of laughing decreases the secretion of epinephrine and cortisol. It reduces stress, promotes relaxation and improves circulation. Deep belly laughter is positively linked to the lymphatic and immune systems.

Did you know that you’re 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with somebody else than if you’re alone? Cognitive neuro-scientist Sophie Scott shares this and other surprising facts about laughter in this fast-paced, action-packed and, yes, hilarious dash through the science of the topic. TED Talks is a daily video podcast of the best talks and performances from the TED Conference, where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes (or less). Look for talks on Technology, Entertainment, and Design — plus science, business, global issues, the arts and much more.

Laughter Promotes Relaxation

Having a sense of humor and laughing relieves physical tension and stress. It stimulates circulation and helps your muscles relax. This in turn assists in relieving some of the symptoms of stress.

The positive relaxation effects can last for up to 45-minutes after a bout of good, hardy laughter. When you laugh, endorphins are released into the blood stream. These natural pain relievers promote a sense of relaxation and wellbeing.

Laughter Improves Your Mood

When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins, interferon-gamma (IFN), and serotonin. These are nature’s own feel good chemicals and are responsible for helping to keep your mood uplifted. Your mood in turn has a contagion effect on those around you.

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