One thing that I am still quite confused about is laughter. Consider two examples:
- We laugh when people fall down or get hit by a ball in the groin, but only if they are not seriously injured.
- Most people hate being tickled, yet smile and laugh when it’s happening to them. (other great apes laugh when tickled too)
What would have been the fitness advantage in the ancestral environment? I find this less obvious than I do for most other instinctive forms of expression (like crying, smiling).
So, I decided to read about laughter research. Here is what I found so far.
Dr. William Fry says that laughter requires a “’play frame,’ which puts a real-life event in a nonserious context and allows for an atypical psychological reaction,” and an “incongruity” between what is observed and what was expected.
He also mentions the role that mirror neurons might play:
In the early 1990s the discovery of mirror neurons led to a new way to understand the incongruity aspect of humor. When we fall down, we thrash about as we reach out to catch ourselves. Neurons in our brain control these movements. But when we observe another person stumbling, some of our own neurons fire as if we were the person doing the flailing—these mirror neurons are duplicating the patterns of activity in the falling person’s brain. My hypothesis regarding the relevance of this mechanism for humor behavior is that the observer’s brain is “tickled” by that neurological “ghost.” The observer experiences an unconscious stimulation from that ghost, reinforcing the incongruity perception.
This suggests that laughter is an expression of sympathy, to some extent. If we see someone fall down, we might first make a sympathetic “oooh” sound and even cringe, before laughing. But why not just feel sympathy, without the laughter?
In An Introduction to Social Psychology, William McDougall theorizes that
…It is obvious that primitive sympathy, indispensable as it was for the life of the group, must have involved a heavy burden upon each member: for he had not only to bear his own mishaps and disappointments and failures, but also to share the distresses and pains of his companions. … Some remedy was needed, an antidote which, while leaving men delicately responsive to all the more intense emotional expressions about them, should spare them the unnecessary suffering involved in sympathetically sharing all the minor pains and distresses which were the daily lot of each member of the group. … Nature seems to have solved it by inventing laughter, by implanting in each member of the race the tendency to laugh when confronted by the spectacle of any minor mishaps and distresses of his fellows.
Negative emotions (stress, depression) are correlated with cardiac risk. Laughter, on the other hand, causes
promotion of the respiratory and circulatory processes and perhaps other vital processes, a general stirring up of the basal metabolic processes which is reflected in consciousness as euphoria, or the sense of increased well-being. The opposite of euphoria is the sense of depression which accompanies a depressed condition of the fundamental vital functions; laughter removes this depression by exerting a generally stimulating effect throughout the organism. But it does more than this, it diverts us; that is to say, it has the peculiar power of arresting the stream of thought and inhibiting all other bodily functions. Even such automatised or deeply habitual bodily activities as walking and standing are apt to be interrupted by laughter.
As social animals we evolved to sympathize with other members of our group. But, if we were to share their pain too often, it would have a negative impact on our health. Laughter allows us to simultaneously sympathize and remain upbeat. In that way, it’s somewhat like self-deception.
There are things about this theory which feel incomplete, but it seemed worth typing up so that I can refer to it later. I’m sure this is a subject I will revisit.
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