why are we laughing A new study suggests it may be a survival strategy: ScienceAlert

A woman in labor is having a terrible time and suddenly screams, “I shouldn’t! I wouldn’t! I couldn’t! He didn’t! I can’t!”

“Don’t worry,” says the doctor. “These are just contractions.”

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

I decided to review 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 more than 100 papers, my study produced a new possible explanation: laughter is a tool that nature may have provided us to help us survive.

I looked at research articles on theories of humor that provided significant information on three areas: the physical characteristics of laughter, the brain centers involved in the production of laughter, and the health benefits of laughter.

This amounted to more than 150 papers that provided evidence for important features of the conditions that make humans 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 totally clear potential signal, as I will explain.

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

The evolution of laughter

Incongruity theory is good at explaining humor-driven laughter, but it is not sufficient.

In this case, laughter is not about a pervasive sense of things being out of date or incompatible. It’s about finding ourselves in a specific situation that subverts our expectations of normality.

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

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Animated anti-hero Homer Simpson makes us laugh when he falls off the roof of his house and bounces like a ball, or when he tries to “strangle” his son Bart, with his eyes rolled up and his tongue flapping like rubber.

These are examples of the human experience shifting to an exaggerated, cartoon version of the world where anything, especially the ridiculous, can happen.

But to be fun, the event must also be perceived as harmless. We laugh because we recognize that the tiger or Homer never effectively hurt others, nor do they hurt themselves, because their worlds are essentially unreal.

So we can reduce laughter to a three-step process. First, it needs a situation that seems strange and induces a feeling of incongruity (bewilderment or panic).

Second, you need to resolve and overcome the worry or stress that has caused the incongruous situation (resolution). Third, the actual release of laughter acts as a clear siren to alert viewers (relief) that they are safe.

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

That’s why laughter is often contagious: it brings us together, it makes us more sociable, it signals the end of fear or worry. Laughter is an affirmation of life.

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We can translate this directly to the 1936 film Modern Times , where Charlie Chaplin’s comic hobo character obsessively fixes bolts in a factory like a robot instead of a man.

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

How humor can be effective

Similarly, the joke at the beginning of this article begins with a scene from normal life, then turns into something a little strange and disconcerting (the woman behaves incongruously), but which we eventually realize which is not serious and actually very comical (the double meaning of the doctor’s answer induces relief), causing laughter.

As I demonstrated in a previous study of human crying behavior, laughter is of great importance to our body’s physiology.

Like crying, and chewing, breathing or walking, laughter is a rhythmic behavior that is a release mechanism of the body.

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

Humor is often used in a hospital setting to help patients heal, as studies of clown therapy have shown.

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

The research examined in my review has also shown that humor is important in teaching and is used to emphasize concepts and thoughts.

Humor related to the course material maintains attention and produces a more relaxed and productive learning environment. In a teaching environment, humor also reduces anxiety, improves engagement and increases motivation.

Love and laughter

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

If another person’s laughter provokes our own, that person tells us that we can relax, that we are safe, and this creates confidence.

If our laughter is triggered by their jokes, it has the effect of making us overcome the fears caused by a strange or unknown situation. And if someone’s ability to be funny inspires us to overcome our fears, we’re more attracted to them. This might explain why we adore those who make us laugh.

In contemporary times, of course, we don’t think twice about laughing. We just enjoy it as a stimulating experience and for the feeling of well-being it brings.

From an evolutionary point of view, this very human behavior may have served an important function in terms of danger awareness and self-preservation.

Even now, if we have a brush with danger, afterwards we often react with laughter out of a sense of total relief.

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

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

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