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What's so funny?

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It brings you power, friends and boosts your immune system… Stylist investigates laughter.

Like Kenuzy, the giant laughing chimp, you probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about why you laugh. You just throw your head back, bare your teeth (at least in Kenuzy’s case) and go with it. But take a minute to imagine life without it. If you didn’t have those moments of sheer hysteria when your best friend ‘accidently’ went freefalling down the high street after tripping on a dodgy paving stone (read: stacked it after a fifth glass of merlot); if you didn’t quell the tension of an uncomfortable situation by retelling a story about the time you did exactly the same. A spurt of uncontrollable ugly laughter – an unrecognised term for when you snort, show off an excessive amount of gum and an unlawful amount of nostril – has the power to turn around the worst of days in a single, stomach-crunching burst. A fit of irrepressible schadenfreude when the moody woman at your local shop shuts the till on her mean little fingers can make you feel all warm inside, as if the world has finally righted itself.

I’m sure Kenuzy would agree that a life without laughter would be a pretty miserable life indeed. The power of a good old belly laugh, whether at someone else’s expense or re-runs of Friends, is irrefutable. It is proven to raise our pain threshold, decrease stress levels and can even boost the immune system. One study even showed that laughing at a film can affect your physical health: last year researchers in Maryland found that subjects’ blood vessel lining constricted when viewing Saving Private Ryan – a stressful film – but expanded during the comedy There’s Something About Mary. This has big implications for conditions such as heart disease. The effects of laughter are also proven to be the same as exercise – 15 minutes of hearty laughter burning 40 calories – and can improve our lung function.

And it’s not simply physical; laughter has such an impact on our mood that it has been found to fight depression. Not only does it trigger the release of endorphins and other ‘well-being’ chemicals in the brain, it also promotes a feeling of unity in social situations (nothing has the ability to bond a group of colleagues like laughing about an inappropriate typo). It can even make us more intelligent – last year researchers at Northwestern University in New York found that 15 minutes spent watching something funny on television boosted the brain’s ability to solve problems.

Born to Laugh

We owe our ability to laugh to our hairy friends, like Kenuzy. “Laughter is an ancient, unconsciously controlled vocal relic that co-exists with modern speech – a social, psychological and biological act predating humour that is shared with our primate cousins,” says Robert R Provine in his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. While they may not find the same things funny, or laugh in the same way we do, there is no mistaking they like a laugh as much as the next monkey. “Monkeys and apes bond through play and grooming, which creates laughter and triggers the release of endorphins, but in primates this interaction is limited to the two apes directly involved in the activity,” says Professor Robin Dunbar, evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University.

Of course we hope, although it’s not always apparent when you consider what prompts some people to post “lol” on Facebook, that our humour has evolved a little more than our primate cousins – “Humans have developed laughter as a way of ‘grooming at a distance’, without actually having to engage in physical contact,” says Dunbar “It means we can ‘groom’ and laugh with several individuals at the same time.” In other words, we have exploited the endorphin-producing capacity of laughter to allow us to live in larger groups.

Our own relationship with laughter starts as a baby. It’s something we learn before we have even said our first word, let alone understood a joke. We first laugh at around two months old, and we ‘catch’ it from our parents, who, from the minute we are born – 4am feeds aside – smile and laugh in front of us until we laugh back. This elicits squeals of delight from them and hugs and kisses for us – as well as lots more laughter. So almost the first life lesson we learn is that laughter equals love. That laugh is then endlessly passed back and forth from parent to child – just type ‘Laughing Quadruplet Babies’ into YouTube if you don’t believe us. We’re conditioned to value this noise above all others, and it’s been like that for millions of years – we’ve evolved that way.

Researchers found that 15 minutes spent watching something funny boosted problem-solving abilities

Experimental psychologist Professor Bruce Hood has extensively studied where in our brains laughter comes from. “Laughter actually originates in the emotional centres of the brain, as well as the pre-motor (before movement) area which plans all our actions,” he told Stylist. In short, we don’t consciously control it. Hence laughing at an entirely inappropriate moment mid-board meeting. We don’t even have to be looking at someone laughing in order to ‘catch’ their fits of hysterics. “Laughter may work by triggering mirror neurons, which cause us to produce the same motor response as the person we are looking at,” he explains.

According to one study, just a two-second burst of taped laughter is enough to make us smile, even if we’re inside an MRI scanner when we hear it. “When you hear someone laughing, whether or not you know them or why they are laughing, you prepare to laugh yourself,” says communications expert Professor Sophie Scott of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL. “Even if people don’t move their face when they hear laughter, you get strong activation in the parts of the brain associated with the production of the sound.” Humans are permanently primed to laugh. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether we’re in on the joke or not.

Talking Funny

Of course, neither apes nor babies are going to give Miranda a run for her money in the funny stakes, so when, exactly, do we start laughing at things that are actually amusing?

For most of us, it’s around the age of six, and it begins with the incredible discovery that words can have two or more meanings, says Paul E McGhee, PhD, author of Understanding And Promoting The Development Of Children’s Humor. What’s brown and sticky? A stick. OK, you might not have tears rolling down your face now, but to a primary school child, that joke is comedy gold. The puns might be basic, but your average six year old laughs 300 times a day because of them.

This childhood discovery of punning leads to what McGhee calls the ‘riddle disease’. “Children become consumed with riddles and tell them endlessly,” he explains. “It is the first time in a child’s life they get to be the one who has the answer – to possess a bit of knowledge that parents and teachers do not have.” And even as children, we’re not above using the laughs we get to our advantage. “Children learn pretty early that if they can get their parents to giggle when they’re upset with them, it goes a lot better,” adds McGhee. We actively want Mum and Dad to catch our laughter, especially if we just broke their favourite vase.

WHY WE LAUGH

This dynamic, learned early in life, goes some way to explain our adult obsession with laughter. As grown-ups, though, it takes a bit more than Mum blowing raspberries to get us giggling… although not much more. Let’s face it; there are few things funnier than someone falling over. One Stylist staffer was doing a rather theatrical impression of her brother’s terrible ice-skating technique in the office (don’t ask, it had been a long day) and just as she got into it fell, quite literally, flat on her face in front of a room full of colleagues who didn’t stop laughing for around 45 minutes. But shared experiences, observational humour and finding comedy in dark situations all serve to make us laugh too.

Trust Sigmund Freud to have come up with a theory or two on the science behind why we laugh at the things we do. He believed laughing was about relieving tension or releasing inhibitions. Have you ever felt like laughing in an inappropriate setting such as a funeral, wedding or tense meeting? That’s the ‘relief’ theory at work: when so much tension is coursing through you that you have to dispel it in some way in order to feel healthy again.

Next is the superiority theory, which, according to Dr Liz Holt, laughter expert at Huddersfield University, arises from comparing yourself to others and finding yourself superior. That explains why we inwardly snigger when we see someone with their skirt stuck into their pants, or when we watch shows like The Only Way Is Essex.

The final thing is incongruity; when laughter derives from a clash between two unexpected ways of seeing something. For example, the build-up of a joke which might lead you to perceive things in a certain way (eg that nuns are pure and godly), whereas the punch line introduces a conflicting idea (eg that they’re the opposite). This often surreal juxtaposition of ideas is what comedians such as Eddie Izzard have spent their careers exploiting.

Laughter isn’t only a sign that you’re amused, it’s a sign that you’re a friend

So we know laughing feels good, and that it actually does us good, but why do we do it? Well firstly it can be a good indicator of hierarchy in the human and animal world. An American study showed that hyenas laugh as they surround their ‘kill’ and that the timbre (sound, pitch and volume) of the laughs decides who is more important in the pack. Back among us humans it does the same thing. Making friends with the ‘joker’ of the pack is no less appealing to us now than when we were at school, as people will still physically flock around them in a social environment. This is because we have learned that it means one of two things: either they are an important figure of authority or they will help us to make more friends ourselves.

Another reason is that laughter has the ability to forge friendships like nothing else. Professor Scott says, “Laughter isn’t only a sign that you’re amused, it’s a sign that you’re a friend. One of the best ways to bond with a group is to make them laugh.” We all have things that still make us laugh until we cry with our best friend even 20 years after they happened – this strengthens age-old bonds, facilitates relationships and makes us feel warm and fuzzy.

It’s perhaps not surprising then, that laughter is the most contagious human behaviour, second only to yawning. Studies show we’re 30 times more likely to laugh in the company of others. Contagious laughter – that belly-clutching howling – even has its own name, Duchenne, differentiating it from the polite chuckling you may use to humour your boss after she tells a terrible joke. One of the best places to see the cohesion contagious laughter creates is in a comedy club.

After an hour of good stand-up, even the stranger sitting next to you is your new best friend, but laughter can be a fickle thing, as comedian Sara Pascoe explains, “You can do the same show for 20 nights in a row, then one night no-one will laugh. But if just two people are laughing, others will be reassured that it’s OK to laugh too.” It doesn’t even have to be because something is particularly funny. “People laughing in the back row because they think the show is bad can lead to genuine laughter,” says Pascoe. “Or a loud, distinctive laugh can lead to a communal moment where the audience laugh at your joke, then the person with the funny laugh, then at everyone else’s laughter. Laughter feeds itself.”

There you have it. Laugh and the world really does laugh with you. So ignore the pain should you go flying on the way to work today because not only will you have probably given people a laugh, you’ll also have boosted their immune system and lowered their stress levels. And, as a parting gift, here’s what British scientists have crowned the world’s funniest joke: A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The driver says: “Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.” The woman goes to the rear of the bus, fuming. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!” The man says: “You go right up there and tell him off – go ahead, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Words: Amy Grier

Picture credits: Rex Features

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