Thursday, June 4, 2009


In the news today, scientists tested a hypothesis that human laughter is shared with other mammals.
Human emotional expressions, such as laughter, are argued to have their origins in ancestral nonhuman primate displays. To test this hypothesis, the current work examined the acoustics of tickle-induced vocalizations from infant and juvenile orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos, as well as tickle-induced laughter produced by human infants. Resulting acoustic data were then coded as character states and submitted to quantitative phylogenetic analysis. Acoustic outcomes revealed both important similarities and differences among the five species.

Here are the results of my own research on the subject:

But seriously, folks, why even study this? For one thing, because it tells us something about social evolution. Also because tracking traits through species can help scientists understand more about nature versus nurture, the dance between genes and their environment. For me, maybe it leads to a better understanding of how humans use humor. In the study, laughter is observed in the context of socialization and the desire to play. Once humans learn to speak, though, they can use language to indicate they want to play. So, why would we still need humor?

I remember my college Latin teacher asking what made a passage we were translating funny. That question has stuck in my head because I knew the passage was funny, but had trouble articulating why. Decades later, my friend Norm said he thought a sense of humor was an important component of survival. A light went on.

I realized that humor is something humans use to mediate between the model of the world they create in their brain and the real world they encounter. That is, when something becomes unintelligible or doesn't make sense, we humans cope by laughing. When I'm writing, the scenes that are funny are those where a character can't understand what's going on. Sometimes the reader knows, sometimes not. If we can't laugh about things we don't understand, we make it harder to cope and to change our understanding of the world around us. My hypothesis is that laughter helps humans survive because it helps us creatively reconstruct our interior model of an exterior world we can't explain. If I'm right, laughing is no laughing matter.

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