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Why we laugh

Von: Ablang (ron916@gmail.com) [Profil]
Datum: 13.08.2007 07:28
Message-ID: <1186982901.052579.166410@l22g2000prc.googlegroups.com>
Newsgroup: alt.support
Why we laugh
While no one really knows, psychologists are sure of this much: Don't
be afraid to let it out. Laughing is an instinct that can be traced to
chimps, and it just may reinforce your social status.
By Cynthia Hubert - Bee Staff Writer

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, August 12, 2007
Story appeared in SCENE section, Page L3

http://www.sacbee.com/107/story/317560.html

Wendy Stevens was sitting in the back of a bus in Aspen, Colo., one
day when she heard the funniest thing:

A silly laugh from somewhere up front. A laugh not unlike her own.

Stevens started to giggle. The person next to her began laughing at
her laughter. Soon, everyone on the bus was in stitches.

"And not one of us knew what we were laughing about," recalls Stevens,
of Carmichael.

Laughter is an ancient, universal form of communication. But it
remains mysterious, even to psychologists and others who study it.

Why do we laugh?

It's a more complicated question than you might think.

Laughter is not always a reaction to humor. In fact, it can be used to
express domination and even contempt, scientists say.

It can help cement someone's social status or detract from it.

Some laughs are contagious, as Stevens learned that day on the bus.
Some are so distracting that they can freeze corporate drones in their
cubicles. Some are downright diabolical.

"Laughter is about relationships," says Robert Provine, a
neuroscientist and professor of psychology who has studied laughter
for two decades. "It's a social act, an instinctive behavior that
binds us together."

And it's not unique to humans, Provine and others have found.

"When you tickle a chimp, and I've tickled a few, you can see where
laughter comes from," says Provine, author of the book "Laughter: A
Scientific Investigation" (Penguin, $15, 272 pages).

Chimpanzees and other primates make panting and tittering sounds
during "rough and tumble play," suggesting the roots of human
laughter, he says.

Another prominent laugh researcher, Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green
State University in Kentucky, has found that rats squeak, or "laugh,"
during sexual intercourse and play sessions. Animal behaviorists have
suggested that dogs laugh, too.

Best medicine, right?

Beyond the fact that laughing is enjoyable, it may have medicinal
value. When someone laughs, scientists have discovered, blood vessels
relax, stress hormones disperse and the immune system gets a boost.
Though the subject remains controversial, several studies, including
one by researchers at Vanderbilt University, suggest that laughter can
help hospital patients cope better with pain.

The psychology and social significance of laughter is a newer field,
one in which Provine, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County,
is a pioneer.

Laughter's significance, he notes, has been recognized through the
ages by such dignitaries as Aristotle, Darwin and Freud. But aside
from a general appreciation of it, we know surprisingly little about
it.

Ask most humans why they laugh, Provine says, and they are stumped.

"They might say, 'Because this or that was funny' or 'Because I was
nervous.' But we really don't know why we laugh, because it's not
under our conscious control."

>From his studies of people interacting in "natural settings" from
malls to cocktail parties, Provine knows one thing for sure: Most
laughter has nothing to do with jokes.

"If you want to laugh more, don't get a comedy book or video," he
advises. "Spend more time with your friends."

Watching groups of people in social situations, Provine has observed
that "maybe 10 to 15 percent" of comments that precede laughs "are
jokey." People are far more likely to laugh after mundane comments
like, 'Hey, is that John?' or 'Where have you been?' he notes.
Laughter is more about "mutual playfulness" than comedy, says Provine.

Among Provine's other conclusions? Speakers usually laugh more often
than their audience when telling a story, and women generally laugh
more than men.

Clues about the laughter

Whether you realize it or not, your laughter reveals subtle messages
about your social status within a group, says Mary Y. Liu, who began
studying the phenomenon as a student at the University of California,
Berkeley, a few years ago.

Liu and her colleagues are looking at four different types of laughter
and what each says about the communicator.

· Dominant laughter serves to humiliate other people, they theorize.

· Submissive laughter reflects embarrassment.

· Affiliation laughter communicates warmth.

· Contempt laughter reflects feelings of superiority or, well,
contempt toward others.

The Berkeley researchers videotaped people laughing and studied their
body language while they were yukking it up. For example, dominant
laughter, Liu says, is usually relatively loud and accompanied by
signals of confidence such as a jutting chin and thrust-out chest.

"Laughter has always interested me because there are so many different
types," says Liu, who continues to be involved in the Laughter Project
even though she has moved on to the University of Michigan.

"Like any form of communication, it can be a great window into
relationships and the ways that people interact with one another."

Is laughter really contagious? Ask anyone who has encountered Laffing
Sal, the mechanical, guffawing lady who has entertained millions of
fun house visitors across the country since the 1930s. Or producers of
comedy shows that feature "laugh tracks" that prompt giggling from
live audiences.

Now, we may have a scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

British scientists published a study earlier this year demonstrating
that "positive sounds" like laughter or even a triumphant "woo hoo!"
trigger a response in a particular part of the listener's brain. That
response primes the brain for a smile or laugh. So laughter is, in a
way, infectious, the researchers say.

"Infectious" is how Claire Gliddon of Fair Oaks describes the laughter
of a former colleague. "When he laughed, everyone smiled, even if you
didn't know what he was laughing at," she recalls. The colleague has
since retired, but Gliddon still hears his laughter in her head. And
it still makes her smile.

Lobbyist Beth Capell's distinctive laugh regularly rings through the
corridors of the state Capitol, where she has plugged away at health
care reform for decades, says her friend Robyn Diane Boyer of
Sacramento. Boyer describes Capell's guffaw in vivid detail:

"It starts deep in her belly, comes whooping up through her windpipe
and then, with a sort of quick intake and outflow of breath, it breaks
into the room as a series of cackles.

"You can't hear it and remain unaffected."

Everyone, it seems, has a story about inappropriate or ill-timed
laughter, which some scientists speculate is a way for the body to
release pent-up tension.

Juliet Farmer of Sacramento recalls her own inexplicable, pew-shaking
laughing fit inside the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City a few
years back. Sacramentan Alene Clift and her sisters Lorie, Suzanne,
Tomi and Viki, couldn't help cracking up during a prayer at their
grandmother's funeral, just as they did when they were small girls and
their beloved Nana made them bow their heads in pious grace before
dinner. Shane Granicher shocked a group of fellow Sacramento Zoo
docents when he began laughing uncontrollably upon hearing the sad,
deadly fate of an escaped kangaroo.

"The more frigid glares I received from my companions, the more
hysterical I became," Granicher recalls.

Everyday life seems to give people plenty of reasons to laugh. But
those looking for a little extra incentive can take laughter
workshops, go to laughter yoga classes or hire laughter coaches.

Laugh to your heart's delight, says Provine. But don't fret too much
about why it's happening.

"The fact is that laughter feels great when you're doing it," he says.

"Shouldn't that be enough?"


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