Laughing in Every Language

Happy April Fool’s Day!

But seriously folks…

Apparently, if you want to do research on laughter, you have to call it “positive emotional response.” According to Jaak Panksepp, a Bowling Green University psychology professor, “There’s no funding in fun research.”

But there is progress being made in understanding laughter, which scientists consider a social response, rather than simply a reaction to a joke.

You may laugh at a prank on April Fools’ Day. But surprisingly, only 10 to 15 percent of laughter is the result of someone making a joke, said Baltimore neuroscientist Robert Provine, who has studied laughter for decades.

“Laughter above all else is a social thing,” Provine said. “The requirement for laughter is another person.”

Laughing is primal, our first way of communicating. Apes laugh. So do dogs and rats. Babies laugh long before they speak. No one teaches you how to laugh. You just do. And often you laugh involuntarily, in a specific rhythm and in certain spots in conversation.

Over the years, Provine, a professor with the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has boiled laughter down to its basics.

“All language groups laugh `ha-ha-ha’ basically the same way,” he said. “Whether you speak Mandarin, French or English, everyone will understand laughter. … There’s a pattern generator in our brain that produces this sound.”

Each “ha” is about one-15th of a second, repeated every fifth of a second, he said. Laugh faster or slower than that and it sounds more like panting or something else.

We’re sort of fascinated by this issue of timing and duration in laughter. We blogged last year about why it’s so difficult to remember jokes (referencing a NY Times article that also cited Dr. Provine’s research), and one of the reasons is that jokes “live or die by nuance, precision and timing.” It doesn’t seem to be a stretch to see how imprecise or delayed temporal processing can lead to awkward social situations because kids miss the funny part. After all, nobody wants to have people pant at their jokes…

But enough of this serious science stuff. It’s April Fool’s Day! So on with the pranks – hopefully they will produce a “positive emotional response”!

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