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“HAPPINESS IS A VERY PRETTY THING TO FEEL, BUT VERY DRY TO TALK ABOUT”

Professor Sophie Scott begs to differ. She shares her insights on laughter and why science has long neglected research in this area

Illustration Michelle Thompson

Scientists haven’t taken laughter seriously. It’s not their fault. The way that psychology and neuroscience have developed in the past several hundred years involved constructing ideas of ‘normal’ experience in a way that could help us understand different experiences such as mental health problems. So when we talk about emotions in my field, we normally mean negative emotions. If you want to understand depression, you should understand sadness. If you want to understand anxiety, you should understand fear.

You can more easily operationalise things like fear responses in rats than you can laughter. Negative emotions feel like they can be quantified and be meaningful, whereas positive emotions such as love and laughter suffer from a western attitude that views them as slightly inappropriate or not sensible adult behaviours. In the post-Medieval period, there was even debate about whether or not Jesus Christ had ever laughed. When I say that I’m studying laughter in rats, it sounds ridiculous – fun, even – and that’s not what we normally think of as science.

Laughter is a fascinating emotion. It takes us from someone’s emotional world directly into their social interactions, and this means it is phenomenally complex in terms of how we develop it, how we use it and how we understand its use. In conversations we use laughter to show that we know someone, that we like them and that we’re part of the same group. We laugh to show that we understand, that we agree or that we recognise an allusion. Most laughter has nothing to do with jokes. We’ll also laugh to cover up embarrassment, anger, sadness or pain. We will laugh to try and deal with stressful situations and we will laugh to try and reframe something as a harmless situation. Laughter is like a hall of mirrors.

“TO OBSERVE AND RECORD PEOPLE’S LAUGHTER, WE NEED TO MAKE THEM LAUGH. YOU CAN’T FORCE IT”

To observe and record people’s laughter, we need to make them laugh. You can’t force it. We let people suggest things that will make them laugh, as there’s very little that is universally funny.

When we need to standardise an experiment, we use examples of people laughing, because laughter is very contagious. You are also much more likely to laugh if you’re with other people. It’s primed by their presence, so some of the laughter you produce is simply because they are laughing. When you catch laughter from other people it’s modulated by your relationship to them, so you’re much more likely to catch a laugh from someone you know than from a stranger. We call it a ‘social affiliative behaviour’, like yawning, blinking and coughing. It’s something that you learn to do and you do it to show your link to that person. Often we don’t realise that we are doing it because it’s a default behaviour in many social situations. At some level it’s as unconscious as breathing. What’s more noticeable is if there’s an absence of laughter.

People recognise laughter around the world, though it has cross-cultural difference. In cultures such as Japan’s there are more situations in which laughter would be deemed inappropriate. The British tend to think that they laugh a lot and I suspect that’s because we are relatively comfortable with a wide range of situations in which laughter is acceptable; but we have our limits. I read a news story about a court case where a woman’s son had been killed, and she complained because she saw the defendants laughing outside the court room. It’s entirely possible that they were not laughing about the case but helping each other to deal with their anxiety at the serious situation that they were in. The bereaved mother considered their laughter a sign of their cold-heartedness.

So far I’ve described laughter as being very positive, but if someone’s laughing at you, it’s one of the worst things that can happen to you. Recently I was on a railway platform and a group of teenage boys were laughing at me. What made it unpleasant for me was not that we were part of two very different social groups with nothing in common, but that they would care so little to be part of the same group that they would strengthen their group bond by laughing at me.

An extreme reaction to others’ laughter is the condition gelotophobia. The person imagines that no matter where the laughter came from, it is directed at them. At its worst, the sufferer’s response would be to punch the person laughing. Thankfully for the rest of us, laughter is a tonic that brightens up the day.

Sophie Scott is the Director of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and a Wellcome Trust Research Felllow

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