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Why We Laugh

By Poisee-Liew Mar 22, 2015 524 Words
This article is from the WebMD Feature Archiveᄃ
Why We Laugh
WebMD Feature by R. Morgan Griffinᄃ
Whether it's the giggling of your child or the enthusiastic hollers of a talk show's studio audience, we hear laughter every day. Nothing could be more common. But just because it's common doesn't make laughter any less strange. Why Do We laugh?

The answer may seem obvious: We laugh when we perceive something funny. But the obvious answer is not correct, at least most of the time. "Most laughter is not in response to jokes or humor," says Robert R. Provine, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Provine should know. He has conducted a number of studies of laughter and authored the book Laughter: a Scientific Investigation. One of his central arguments is that humor and laughter are not inseparable. Provine did a survey of laughter in the wild. And in a survey of 1,200 "laugh episodes," he found that only 10%-20% of laughs were generated by anything resembling a joke. Provine argues it has to do with the evolutionary development of laughter. In humans, laughter predates speech by perhaps millions of years. Before our human ancestors could talk with each other, laughter was a simpler method of communication, he tells WebMD. But perhaps because laughter is so ancient, it's much less precise than language. Laughing Is Contagious

Why does hearing other people laugh make us more likely to laugh ourselves? "We laugh 30 times as much when we're with other people than we do when we're alone," says Provine. Instead, the purpose of a laugh could be to trigger positive feelings in other people. When you laugh, the people around you might start laughing in response. Soon, the whole group is cheerful and relaxed. Laughter can ease tension and foster a sense of group unity. Laughter for Your Health

However, Provine says he is skeptical about the health benefits of laughter. "I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon," says Provine, "but the evidence that laughter has health benefits is iffy at best." He says most studies of laughter have been small and problematically conducted. He also says that the bias of the researchers is too evident; they want to prove that laughter has benefits. Provine also points out that it's difficult to separate the effects of laughter, specifically, from all of the other things that go with it. "It's part of a larger picture," says Provine. "Laughter is social, so any health benefits might really come from being close with friends and family, and not the laughter itself." "Laughing more could make you healthier, but we don't know," he says. "I certainly wouldn't want people to start laughing more just to avoid dying -- because sooner or later, they'll be disappointed." But he and Provine agree that whether laughter actually improves your health or not, it undeniably improves your quality of life. "Obviously, I'm not antilaughter," says Provine. "I'm just saying that if we enjoy laughing, isn't that reason enough to laugh? Do you really need a prescription?"

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