Is laughter contagious?


Infectious Laughter
You're more likely to find your funny bone tickled in a group of people.
You're more likely to find your funny bone tickled in a group of people.
© iStockphoto.com/digitalskillet

Here's an experiment: Try to laugh out loud, right now. Did you find it difficult? Laughter is very difficult to fake, so when we do let loose with gaggles of giggles, it's a largely involuntary action. Now think about this: Do you find yourself laughing more at films when you see them in a theater with other people, or when you're watching them at home alone on television? If you're like most people, you'll laugh more at a funny film that you see with an audience. Researcher Robert Provine has found that laughter is 30 times more frequent in groups compared to private settings [source: Provine]. That's not to say we don't find things funny when we're by ourselves, but we're more likely to smile or talk to ourselves than to roll on the floor laughing [source: Provine].

Because laughter is an involuntary action most often occurring in groups, Provine theorized that our brains likely have a laugh detector that triggers some sort of laugh generator. Researchers at University College London may have found that neural mechanism. In a 2006 study, the researchers played subjects a host of sounds while monitoring their brain's responses with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. The subjects were played a mix of positive sounds, such as laughter and a friendly shout, as well as negative sounds, which included retching and screaming.

All of the sounds activated a part of the brain known as the premotor cortical region; this part of the brain readies our facial muscles to react to sounds. In other words, when people heard laughing, they began to smile. But don't worry; people didn't start retching as well -- responses for the negative sounds were lower, indicating that our brain is much more likely to respond to positive sounds than to negative ones [source: Thompson].

If you're worried that your brain is forcing you to laugh at things that aren't funny, consider what a boon this was to our ancestors. If laughter predated speech, as some theorists suggest, then this penchant for positivity was an important way to demonstrate friendliness. Laugher was a way to show that you meant another group no harm, that you wanted to belong. Even now, laughing is an important social tool that builds bonds between people. A laugh is a way to encourage conversation on a first date and a means to bring people together over a shared experience. Thus, it appears that the old expression is true -- laugh, and the whole world laughs with you.

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Sources

  • Angier, Natalie. "Laughs: Rhythmic Bursts of Social Glue." New York Times. Feb. 27, 1996. (June 1, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/27/science/laughs-rhythmic-bursts-of-social-glue.html
  • Hempelmann, Christian F. "The laughter of the 1962 Tanganyika 'laughter epidemic.'" Humor. March 2007.
  • Kluger, Jeffrey. "The Funny Thing About Laughter." Time. Jan. 17, 2005.
  • Provine, Robert R. "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation." Viking Penguin. 2000.
  • Provine, Robert R. "The Science of Laughter." Psychology Today. November/December 2000. (June 1, 2009)http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20001101-000036.html
  • "The 100 Worst Ideas of the Century." Time. 1999. (June 1, 2009)http://www.time.com/time/time100/worstideas.html
  • Thompson, Andrea. "Study: Laughter Really is Contagious." LiveScience. Dec. 12, 2006. (June 1, 2009)http://www.livescience.com/health/061212_contagious_laughter.html
  • Tierney, John. "What's So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing." New York Times. March 13, 2007. (June 1, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/13/science/13tier.html
  • Walker, Rob. "The Lives They Lived; Making Us Laugh." New York Times. Dec. 28, 2003. (June 1, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/28/magazine/the-lives-they-lived-making-us-laugh.html

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