Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Why Do We Laugh? The Function Of Laughter

That was funny...that's why you laughed, right? You sure? I was watching the Roast of David Hasselhoff on Comedy Central, and it got me thinking. What exactly is laughter?! Evolutionarily, it must have some sort of function. And after some research and digging through a lot of crackpot theories, I found that it does.

You can go anywhere in the world, visit any culture, no matter what their language or their value system, they have laughter. There is something very important about this enjoyable but elusive little tendency of ours. Turns out that laughter isn't put there just for our enjoyment. Its actually serves a crucial and very important function in our lives.

Humans are tribal by nature, meaning we have a tendency to herd and form cliques (yes high school cliques are completely natural, sorry to disapoint). But the mechanism we use to form the bonds that build tribes is the very feeling we enjoy the most: laughter. Laughter is a way for our minds to both anchor positive feelings about others and to express those feelings externally. This way others can read our social cues about how we feel about them too.

So I started digging a little more and started to think of things like "Ok, well what makes something funny?" Comedians and researchers all over the country have come up with three theories as to what makes things funny, each having tendencies to contradict each other. So for my own sanity, I decided to come up with a new one that incorporates them all, coupled with an interesting piece of science to back it up.

Laughter is actually nothing more than the end result, its actually whats behind the laughter that is interesting. We have these things in our brains called mirror neurons. They are the neurons that allow us to visualize and empathize with people. They are the very reason why laughter as well as depression is infectious: we see some one laughing and we start laughing, we see someone crying and we get teared up. We as humans, use these neurons to empathize and understand people in order to solidify relationships. And these mirror neurons are the very reason why we laugh too.

Take a stand up comic for example. The reason we laugh is because these mirror neurons allow us to empathize or visualize a situation (or a joke) being described. This empathy then causes a building of tension as you listen and picture him in this situation. And for a brief moment you step into the comic's reality. This reality is meant to directly conflict with normal reality. This cognitive dissonance builds further until we become self-aware again. The moment of self-awareness creates surprise (due to how much tension we realize we now have!) which leads to a release of the tension through laughter. Which leads me to two important principles of humor:

1) Laughter is a mechanism for the release of tension and thus pleasurable feelings, (Think of a massage, that release of tension feels good right?), with the external action itself being a social cue to others as to what we are feeling about them.

2) The two required elements in all humor: tension and surprise.

And in case you try to notice all this happening at once, you probably won't, I tried. It all happens in less than a second!

To prove 2) take this for example. You can't tickle yourself, and when I say that I mean you can't tickle yourself to the extent someone else can. This is because when someone else tickles you, the anticipation of them tickling you builds the necessary tension, which is released by surprise when they actually do it! The mind's mechanism for laughter uses the same two ingredients in all cases.

As far as the social mechanism goes, it makes perfect sense. How many times have you found you've liked a person who never makes you laugh, nor who you've never seen laugh? Probably none. Laughter is a genius and enjoyable way that humans solidify relationships. This also explains forced laughter, which is what people do to bad jokes to show the person "hey i liked it! I like you!"

Its also why women always look for a man who can make them laugh. They instinctively know that laughter forms the bond they need to feel closer to him. Guys, how many times have you had girls laughing at stuff you said that wasn't even that funny? Girls, how many times have you found yourself laughing at everything he says? Social bonding at its finest.

I will point out something else I learned through all this is that humor relies on the individual's tension levels, which thus makes it subjective and thus more of an art than a science. What someone may find funny someone else may not because it failed to either raise or release their tension levels. Therefore there is both a values and an intelligence factor in humor.

Intelligence (intelligence being defined as "awareness") affects humor because in order for us to find something funny, we need to be able to visualize it or empathize with the person. If we can't visualize it, we won't find it funny. When someone says "I don't get it," chances are they failed to visualize or empathize with what was said. And it may not be you, it may be them. If someone lacks the awareness (i.e a calculus joke), its going to be harder for them to empathize with your funny calculus joke. They just "won't get it" because they can't visualize it happening. The more intelligence or global awareness of different experiences someone has, the more likely they will have the necessary empathy to understand the humor.

While intelligence affects empathy ability, values affect tension levels. If you crack a joke about a sensitive subject, you'll send tension levels through the roof without proper release caused by surprise. If you crack a racial joke that ends badly, its because the person on the receiving end's tension flew through the roof, but was not released through surprise. Maybe they weren't surprised because they have a personal experience with that particular perspective of reality that didn't end well for them. This leaves them just tense, and thus, feeling outraged.

Hope you found this interesting, its late and I'm going to bed.