From Today’s Lecturer: Sophie Scott addresses the science behind laughter

have been studying human voices and human speech for nearly 30 years. It’s easy to see why voices and speech matter — they’re still our dominant mode for social interactions, and they can go wrong in so many ways — from developmental problems like a stammer, to acquired problems in adulthood, like a stroke that makes it hard to talk. When I give a talk about speech and voices, I hardly ever get asked why I study these topics. People can see the worth of knowing about this.

I have, as part of my research, looked at emotion in the voice and over the last decade I have done more and more work on laughter as part of this. And I am quite frequently asked why I study laughter. What’s the point in studying laughter scientifically? “Is this even science?” one colleague asked me.

I think there are several reasons for this. The first is that, historically in Western psychology, we have tended to emphasise negative emotions like fear, sadness, disgust, anger. Partly, this is because of their clear clinical applications. However it’s had the effect of making us treat “emotions” as always meaning “negative emotions.” And there are very very few scientific papers on laughter — the published literature on fear dwarfs the laughter literature by 26:1. So people are likely confused because it’s highly possible they’ve never seen any published laughter science. If I’m being cynical, it may also be that negative emotions like anger and fear feel like proper, serious emotions to study, while positive emotions like joy or laughter feel a bit trivial. A bit not like real science, and psychology can be very touchy about not being considered a “real science.” And maybe laughter just sounds too silly to study scientifically — something that unserious could never be important, could it?

Well, it just could be. The more I study laughter and the more I read, the clearer it is that laughter is an incredibly important emotional expression. In the first place, this is because it is not really anything to do with humour — Robert Provine has shown that while we think we laugh at jokes and comedy, laughter is primarily a social behaviour, and we laugh when we’re with other people much more often than when we’re on our own. And when we’re laughing with other people, we’re still very rarely laughing at jokes — people laugh to show affiliation, agreement, affection. We laugh to make and maintain social bonds, to demonstrate membership of a group, to show we understand and appreciate comments — though we do obviously also laugh at jokes, those are not the most common reason why we laugh. Indeed, we can even catch laughter contagiously — particularly if we know someone, we can find ourselves laughing along with them even if we have no idea why they are laughing.

In our research, we’re finding that people continue to develop their perceptions of laughter as they get older. For example, children cannot tell the difference between helpless involuntary laughter and friendly social laughter — but we get better as we get older at telling the two apart. Strikingly, however, we do not peak in our accuracy at spotting social laughter until we are in our late 30s. We’re probably learning about laughter throughout not only our childhood and adolescence, but also our entire early adult life. The only other graphs I have seen that show such a slow progression, and peak in early middle age, is measures of “emotional intelligence,” such as empathy. Laughter is an emotion, but it’s one we learn to use in social settings, and indeed that’s the only way we can learn it.

And laughter may be even more important than an expression of affection and agreement. Robert Levenson has done some amazing scientific studies of couples, following people up over years of marriage, and putting couples in “difficult” situations while he measures their physiological responses. When given a “difficult” topic to talk about together (e.g. “what you do that irritates me”), both members of the couple become stressed, as can be seen in their bodily states. Couples who deal with this with positive emotional expressions — like laughter or smiling — both start to feel better. They’re also the happier couples who stay together for longer. Importantly, however, they only feel better if both members of the couple laugh or smile — if one person remains stony faced, no one feels better. The laughter is more that just a signal — I LIKE YOU (though it is also that). Shared laughter is a way for people to feel better — together. The shared laughter — and maybe the ways couple negotiate their way to shared laughter — is a way of regulating emotional states together, to feel better together. Laughter may be an index of the strength of a relationship, and it may well not be limited to romantic relationships — maybe it’s what we mean by friendship. Certainly I can recall, when I was told by my partner of the sudden death of our closest friend, that my immediate thought was to ring him and tell him people were saying he was dead, as I thought it would make him laugh.

So it may really be time to take laughter seriously. It lives in social interactions — from fleeting transactions on the train to close emotional relationships — and it’s an emotion that we can use to regulate our emotional states in a highly positive way. We’re now working to understand how much people vary with respect to their individual experience with laughter, and we’re also investigating laughter perception by people with depression, with teenagers who have conduct disorders, and with people who have autism, to see if we can start to build up a picture of how these conditions affect people’s responses to and understanding of laughter. I can’t lie, laughter is great fun to study, but that doesn’t mean we cannot be serious.

Sophie Scott is a Wellcome Trust senior fellow at University College London and deputy director of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, where she researches voices, speech and laughter; research in recent years has focused on the neuroscience of laughter. Known for her public engagement work, Scott refers to herself as a “standup scientist,” and has appeared on the BBC Radio Four program “The Life Scientific.” She has also given a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution on the science of laughter.

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Sophie Scott

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