Infectious Laughter

Infectious Laughter

Everyone reading this will have experienced hysterical laughter at some point in their life. Chances are, you weren’t alone when this happened. Laughter is a typically group activity and Professor Robert Provine believes we have a laughter detector in our brain which, when triggered, makes us laugh too. Laughter can therefore be considered infectious or contagious because our bodies do seem to physically react to the sound of laughter around us. Here’s a little bit of the science and psychology behind this theory.


Professor Robert Provine is a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he lectures in psychology. His most well known book was titled Laughter: A Scientific Investigation and despite being published in 2000, remains an often cited source when it comes to the subject of laughter. In this book, Provine pointed out that humans aren’t the only animals to laugh. Apes do too, suggesting that laughter is something which pre-dates speech and was used as a way to communicate before homo-sapiens were able to talk. This means that when man first ‘laughed’, it had nothing to do with humour. Now, however, we place a great deal of emphasis on laughter as a way to measure how funny something or someone is. If you tell a joke and no one laughs, you’d be disappointed. Equally, funny movies and television shows generally get higher ratings and make more episodes than those which viewers aren’t entertained by. Simply put; humans like to laugh and many of us also like to make others laugh.


When I am watching television or reading on my own, it takes a lot for me to laugh out loud. I presume you are the same. Go to the cinema, however, and the entire audience reacts audibly. Provine’s research showed that the reason for this is that laughing is a social action and we use it to communicate with those around us. It is not the movie itself we are reacting to but rather laughter is an involuntary social reaction, a vocalisation which humans make to help bond a group. Laughter is an ancient social cue which is most powerful when in a group. So while a trip to the cinema may see you laughing loudly, that same movie in your living room five months later will likely get a far more muted reaction.


Provine’s study also observed numerous interactions which involved laughter but no joke. While we associate laughing with humour, it appears in many ways to be an innate reaction to social interaction, irrespective of whether it is funny or not. We laugh because of people, not what is being said. When looking through the lonely hearts adverts as part of his research, Provine concluded that not only is laughter a key social interaction between people but also gender dependent. The adverts concluded that women sought out funny men while men were more likely to advertise themselves as funny. Provine’s observations of social situations concluded that women laugh more than men and men are more likely to be the one whom the laugh is in reaction to.


There is a general consensus that humour is universal; think of the global success of Charlie Chaplin and Mr Bean where no language is needed to understand the jokes. But Provine also pointed out something else which I hadn’t realised. The written words we use to denote laughter; ‘ha-ha’, ‘hee-hee’ and even ‘ho-ho’, are also universal. Even someone who doesn’t understand any English would recognise these sounds as laughter. It truly is the universal language and as such, two people who are unable to communicate in any other way, could find themselves sharing a hysterical fit of laughter. Odd, right?


And that brings me to the title once more. Laughter is infections. Provine argues that this is because laughing is spontaneous and we rarely censor it. Therefore, when we see someone in hysterics, we instinctively laugh as well. It’s all a display of social interaction. The most extreme example of infectious laughter was in 1962 when a girls’ boarding school in Tanzania had to be closed down after 95 students couldn’t stop laughing. The ‘infection’ spread to almost 1000 people in Central Africa over the next two-and-a-half years. Now, I’ve never experienced anything quite that severe but if I’m in a room with my mum and she breaks int§o the giggles, the two of us will be crying with laughter within a few minutes. Often I don’t even know what made her laugh in the first place. For me, it’s a simple reaction to her behaviour.


Making people laugh is great. I love the feeling of entertaining friends and do so as often as I can. But laughter is about more than just jokes. It’s social and cements bonds between people. Smiling and laughing with friends or strangers brightens everyone day so, in theory, it’s a good deed, right?


Go, do, experience. More Good Deed