Seriously, not a laughing matter
I’ve been to so many different countries of the world, have stayed with cannibals in the Southern Highlands of Papua Niugini, played football with children in Greenland and in Nagaland, observed people in Bolivia and Djibouti, been diving with Jamaicans and Indonesians and what did I notice? People no matter where on Earth, what race, what upbringing, what sex, what age – we all laugh in similar ways.
Even children born deaf and blind show the typical and characteristic patterns that accompany human laughter. And animals? They also seem to laugh as the Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann in his story “A Man and his Dog” describes so poignantly. After tapping the dog on its nose he writes “it is moving to see” how under such teasing the “thin animal cheeks and the corners of his mouth will twitch, and over his dark animals mask passes an expression like a human smile”.
Some research has indeed been conducted on laughter and smiles in animals (and whether animals understand and possess a sense of humour), but human laughter, because of its important role in communication, has received considerably more attention and its role must surely lie in the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees have been described to laugh after tickling themselves (and of course also after being tickled), but when humans tickle themselves it isn’t a very effective laughing stimulus. Researchers have actually constructed a “tickling machine”, which can give a constant and quantifiable stimulus, e.g. feathers on a rotating wheel stimulating the underside of a foot. Curiously, when the tickle machine is operated by a person other than the one being tickled, it produces greater laughter than if the tickled person alone operates it.
Human laughter has been interpreted as a remnant of an animal’s behaviour of “baring one’s teeth” prior to a fight or of showing its weapons to intimidate the opponent. The hearty laughter and the accompanying nodding head movements have been likened to a mock biting attack. Whether right or wrong, there often is indeed an element of fear in human laughter. In some languages people can “laugh themselves sick” or even “to death”. Laughter could be an expression of a conflict between attack and retreat, a displacement activity between fight and flight, between joy and fear and even between happiness and sadness. Laughter can definitely provide relief from tension and “Laughing Clubs”, in which people come together simply to laugh, exist in some countries. It can be seen as an exercise not just to lift a person’s mood, but for the lungs and breathing system as well.
Naturally, not all forms of laughter are identical and the first smile of a newborn is certainly different from the hysterical laughter of a tickled person or that of a mischievous prankster. Moreover, humour and reactions to jokes vary between ethnic groups and citizens of different countries even if the laughter itself, when initiated, would be the same. The origin and biological function of laughter become further complicated if we consider the sometimes very close relationship to crying, for it is not uncommon to see people “laugh tears” or “weep with joy” or react to tragic news with “laughing disbelief”. Whatever laughter really is, it must have become clear to the reader of this essay that to the serious researcher laughter is definitely not a laughing matter at all.
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2017.
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