There is something absurd about it. The sudden throwing back of the head, the widening of lips and baring of teeth, the sharp intake of air and the equally sudden outburst of it and not to forget, the sound; the strange sound that comes in waves, wracking the body leaving the person breathless. It could be a war cry, it could be an angry animal, and it could be pain. And all it is is laughter.
Every action that we perform on the most rudimentary level, has it’s origins in our evolutionary upbringing. We eat because we are hungry and need to nourish ourselves. We are angry because we need to defend ourselves from predators; we preen to attract the opposite sex so we can reproduce and keep the species going. So then what evolutionary purpose does laughter serve?
Why do we do it? What is this funny little thing called laughter?
For something with such an unclear purpose, we sure do it a lot, in fact we do it so often, it’s seems like breathing, it just happens. An adult laughs, on an average about 17 times a day. We must remember that humans laughed much before Seinfeld, Monty Python, Dane Cook and 30 Rock. So why are we still doing it? Social scientist Robert Provine, who has extensively studied the phenomenon, believes that, much like preening, it is a social signal. Laughter is used to signal relief and the passing of danger. Its evolutionary origins also explain the contagious nature of laughter; we have all been in a moment, when one person starts to laugh and before you know it, the entire room is in splits.
Likewise, it is also used to express solidarity in a group. Laughter, according to him came out of man’s gregarious nature and the need to live in groups. In fact so strong is its communicative purpose that it even adheres to the punctuation effect, a phenomenon noted by linguistics over the years(Marshall). It observes that laughter only occurs at the end of natural phrases. This means that even if a person is laughing while saying something, he/she will only laugh at the same point in the sentence that they would have paused to breathe anyway.
For something that has always been associated with humor, we do a lot of it outside of a funny situation. Robert Provine’s offers explanations in his book “Laughter” for the modern use of the ha ha. One of the reasons we laugh, is because we feel superior to people or things. When somebody does something we deem stupid, intentionally or unintentionally, we laugh at them. In fact laughter has often been prescribed as a signifier of confidence; a confidence that rises out of feeling superior to the people around you. The more confident a person is, the more they tend to laugh. Robert Provine has in fact noted in the workplace, that employers tend to laugh more than the employees.
Another reason that has been identified as a cause for laughter, is surprise. If someone sneaks up on you to tickle you, you go into splits, but if you tickle yourself in the same spot, you will never evoke laughter, because the major element of surprise is gone. Similarly, the major component of a joke/ something funny is the surprise ending. For example “Do not follow, for I may not lead. Do not lead, for I may not follow. Just leave me alone will ya?” By taking a line out of conventional knowledge, and twisting it to surprise us, we have managed to evoke laughter.
As for its evolutionary purposes, we laugh when we are relieved. Biologically, when we are tensed, the fight or flight response comes into play and we begin to breathe shallow, but as soon as danger passes, we laugh not only in order to signify the passing of this danger but also to regulate our breathing. Today, in the workplace, the average employee experiences a lot of stress. This has led to the birth of corporate humor and emergence of popular comic strips like Dilbert.
The most amazing thing about laughter is the power it holds. Laughter does not belong to a single language or culture. Like the need for food, clothes and shelter, laughter is not culture specific. It serves as a tool of social cohesion. On some level, laughter is like religion. You don’t have to know English to be able to love Jesus, and similarly you don’t have to be able to speak the same language to all have a laugh at the poor unfortunate soul who got drunk, slipped on a banana peel, tried getting up and banged his head on the edge of the table, fell back down, tried getting up again and banged his head on the edge of the table yet again. Just like a religious holiday, even laughter has its own day. Madan Kataria, of the Laughter Yoga movement has now declared January 11th as “World Laughter Day.”
However, as human beings and social scientists we still understand very little of laughter, and even though we will be doing it (hopefully) everyday for the rest of our lives, we will never fully be able to appreciate the purpose and power of this funny little thing called laughter.