A woman in labor is having a terrible time and suddenly yells, “I shouldn’t! I would not do it! I couldn’t! Nope! Can not!”
“Don’t worry,” says the doctor. “It’s just contractions.”
Until now, various theories have sought to explain what makes something funny enough to make us laugh. These include transgression (something forbidden), puncturing 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 last ten years to see if any other conclusions could be drawn. After reviewing more than a hundred articles, 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 papers on theories of humor that provided significant insights into three areas: the physical characteristics of laughter, the brain centers involved in laughter production, and the health benefits of laughter. This amounted to over 150 articles providing 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 possible signal that all is clear, as I will explain.
This raises the possibility that natural selection may have preserved laughter for 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.
The incongruity theory is good at explaining humor-driven laughter, but it’s not good enough. In this case, laughing isn’t about some pervasive feeling that things are out of sync or incompatible. It is 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 funny, on the contrary, it would be terrifying. But if the tiger rolls like a ball, it becomes comical.
Animated anti-hero Homer Simpson makes us laugh when he falls from the roof of his house and bounces like a ball, or when he tries to “strangle” his son Bart, with his eyes bulging and his tongue flapping like rubber. These are examples of the human experience shifting into an exaggerated, cartoonish version of the world where anything, especially the ridiculous, can happen.
But to be funny, the event must also be perceived as harmless. We laugh because we recognize that the tiger or Homer never actually hurt others, nor do they hurt themselves, because essentially their worlds aren’t real.
So we can reduce laughter to a three-step process. First, you need a situation that seems strange and induces a sense of incongruity (bewilderment or panic). Second, the worry or stress that has caused the incongruous situation must be resolved and overcome (resolution). Third, the actual release of laughter acts as a clear siren to alert bystanders (relief) that they are safe.
Laughter could well 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. For this reason, laughter is usually contagious: it unites us, makes us more sociable, signals the end of fear or worry. Laughter is affirmation of life.
We can translate this directly to the 1936 movie Modern Times, where Charlie Chaplin’s comic drifter obsessively fixes screws in a factory like a robot instead of a man. He makes us laugh because unconsciously we want to show others that the disturbing spectacle of a man reduced to a robot is a 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 starts with a scene from normal life, then turns into something a bit strange and disconcerting (the woman behaves incongruously), but which we eventually realize is not. serious and is actually quite comical (the double meaning of the doctor’s response induces relief), eliciting laughter.
As I showed in a previous study on the human behavior of crying, laughter has a great importance for the physiology of our body. Like crying, chewing, breathing, or walking, laughter is a rhythmic behavior that is a release mechanism for 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 fills the body with relief.
Humor is often used in a hospital setting to aid patients in their healing, as clown therapy studies 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 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 one to formulate a hypothesis about 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 ours, then that person is indicating that we can relax, that we are safe, and this creates trust.
If our laughter is provoked 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 drawn to them. That could explain why we love those who make us laugh.
In contemporary times, of course, we don’t think twice about laughing. We simply enjoy it as an uplifting experience and for the sense 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, we often react with laughter out of a sense of sheer relief.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Carlo Valerio Bellieni does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic position.