Why are we laughing? A new study suggests it might be a survival strategy: ScienceAlert

A woman in labor has a terrible time and suddenly screams, “She shouldn’t! She could not! She could not! She could not! She could not!”

“Don’t worry,” says the doctor. “It’s just contractions.”

So far, several theories have tried to explain what makes something funny enough to make us laugh. These include transgression (something forbidden), piercing a sense of arrogance or superiority (mockery), and incongruity – the presence of two incompatible meanings in the same situation.

I decided to look at all the available literature on laughter and humor published in English over the past 10 years to see if any other conclusions could be drawn.

After reviewing over 100 articles, my research yielded one new possible explanation: laughter is a tool that nature could provide to help us survive.

I looked at research into the theory of humor, which provided relevant information in three areas: the physical characteristics of laughter, the brain centers involved in producing laughter, and the health benefits of laughter.

There were over 150 articles that provided evidence of important characteristics of the conditions that make people laugh.

By organizing all the theories into specific areas, I was able to condense the laughter process into three main steps: bewilderment, resolution, and a potential totally clear signal as I will explain.

This raises the possibility that laughter may have been preserved by natural selection over the past millennia to help people survive. It could also explain why we are drawn to people who make us laugh.

The evolution of laughter

Incongruity theory does a good job of explaining humorous laughter, but that’s not enough.

In this case, laughter is not about the pervasive feeling that things are inappropriate or incompatible. It is about being in a specific situation that challenges our expectations of normalcy.

For example, if we see a tiger walking down a city street, it may seem inappropriate, but it is not comical – on the contrary, it would be scary. But if the tiger rolls like a ball, it becomes comical.

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The animated anti-hero, Homer Simpson, makes us laugh when he falls off the roof of his house and jumps like a soccer ball, or when he tries to “strangle” his son Bart, with his eyes bulging and his tongue flapping like he was made of rubber.

These are examples of a human experience turning into an exaggerated, cartoonish version of a world where anything – especially funny – can happen.

But to be fun, the event must also be viewed as harmless. We laugh because we admit that a tiger or Homer never effectively hurt others, nor are they hurt themselves because their worlds are fundamentally not real.

So we can translate laughter into a three-step process. First, she needs a situation that seems strange and creates a feeling of incompatibility (bewilderment or panic).

Second, the worry or stress caused by the inappropriate situation must be worked through and overcome (resolve). Third, the actual release of laughter acts as a clear siren to alert passers-by (relief) that they are safe.

Laughter can be a signal that people have used for millennia to show others that a fight or flight response is not required and that the perceived threat has passed.

Hence, laughter is often contagious: it unites us, makes us more social, signals the end of fear or worry. Laughter is an affirmation of life.

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We can translate this directly into the 1936 movie Modern Times, in which Charlie Chaplin’s comic tramp obsessively fixes screws in a factory like a robot instead of a human.

It makes us laugh because we unconsciously want to show others that the disturbing spectacle of a man reduced to a robot is a fiction. He is a man, not a machine. There is no cause for concern.

How humor can be effective

Likewise, the joke at the beginning of this article starts with a scene from normal life, then turns into something a little strange and surprising (the woman is acting inappropriately), but from which we ultimately realize that it is not serious and actually very comical (double meaning the doctor’s reaction causes relief), causing laughter.

As I showed in a previous study on human crying behavior, laughter is of great importance to the physiology of our body.

Like crying – and chewing, breathing, or walking – laughing is a rhythmic behavior that is a release mechanism for the body.

The brain centers that regulate laughter are those that control emotions, fears, and anxiety. Releasing laughter breaks down the stress or tension of the situation and floods the body with relief.

Humor is often used in a hospital setting to help patients heal, as research into clown therapy has shown.

Humor can also improve blood pressure and immune defenses, and help you overcome anxiety and depression.

The research analyzed in my review also showed that humor is important in teaching and is used to emphasize concepts and thoughts.

The humor of the course material sustains attention and creates a more relaxed and productive learning environment. In an educational setting, humor also reduces anxiety, increases participation, and increases motivation.

Love and laughter

Looking at this laughter data also allows us to hypothesize why people fall in love with someone because they “make me laugh.” It’s not just a matter of being funny. It could be something more complex.

If someone’s laughter provokes us, that person signals that we can relax, we are safe – and this builds trust.

If our laughter is triggered by their jokes, it makes us overcome our fears caused by strange or unknown situations. And if someone’s ability to be funny inspires us to overcome our fears, we are more drawn to them. This may explain why we love those who make us laugh.

Of course, we don’t think twice about laughing these days. We just enjoy it as an uplifting experience and for the well-being it brings.

From an evolutionary point of view, it is human behavior that probably played an important role in terms of threat awareness and self-preservation.

Even now, if we have come close to danger, we often laugh afterwards, out of a feeling of sheer relief.

Carlo Valerio Bellieni, Professor of Pediatrics, University of Siena.

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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