If you want to communicate with someone from across the globe who speaks a different language, all you have to do is laugh. Laughter is a form of communication that’s universally recognized, which suggests it has deep importance to humankind.1
It's thought that laughter may have occurred before humans could speak as a playful way for mothers and infants to communicate, as a form of play vocalization, or to strengthen group bonds. Even today our brains are wired to prime us to smile or laugh when we hear others laughing.
Yet, laughter is a largely involuntary response; it’s not generally something you can force yourself to do. Instead, laughter is thought to be triggered by mechanisms in your brain and impacts breathing patterns, facial expressions, and even the muscles in your arms and legs.
It plays a role in your health, too, and has many quirks and mysteries that make it one of the most fascinating physical reactions that a human (and certain other species) can make.
Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist and stand-up comic, put together these surprising facts about laughter.2
1. Rats Laugh When They’re Tickled
Rats laugh when they’re tickled, and the more they play together, the more they laugh. Psychologist Jack Panksepp first observed laughing rats in the 1990s; he needed special equipment to hear it, as rats’ laughs are very high pitched.
2. You’re More Likely to Laugh Around Others – Not Because of Jokes
If you're laughing, you're far more likely to be surrounded by others, according to research by laughter expert Dr. Robert Provine. The critical laughter trigger for most people is another person, not a joke or funny movie.
After observing 1,200 people laughing in their natural environments, Dr. Provine and his team found that laughter followed jokes only about 10-20 percent of the time. Social laughter occurs 30 times more frequently than solitary laughter.
In most cases, the laughter followed a banal comment or only slightly humorous one, which signals that the person is more important than the material in triggering laughter.
3. Your Brain Can Detect Fake Laughter
Professor Scott’s research has shown that your brain can tell the difference between real or staged laughter. When you hear staged, or deliberate, laughter, it prompts more activity in your brain’s anterior medial prefrontal cortex, which helps you understand other people’s emotions.
This suggests your brain automatically goes to work deciphering why someone is deliberately laughing.
4. Laughter Is Contagious
The saying "laugh and the whole world laughs with you" is more than just an expression: laughter really is contagious. The sound of laughter triggers regions in the premotor cortical region of your brain, which is involved in moving your facial muscles to correspond with sound and prepare to join in.3
5. Jokes Are Funnier if You Know the Comedian
Familiarity is a key part of humor and laughter, and research shows people find jokes told by famous comedians to be funnier than the same joke told by someone they’re not familiar with.
6. Laughing Burns Calories
Laughing raises both your energy expenditure and heart rate by about 10 percent to 20 percent. This means you could burn about 10-40 calories by laughing for 10 to 15 minutes. While this sounds good in theory, you’d have to laugh solidly for an hour or more for this calorie burning to have any meaningful effect.
7. Laughing Is Good for Your Relationships
Research shows that couples who use laughter and smile when discussing a touchy subject feel better in the immediacy and report higher levels of satisfaction in their relationship. They also tend to stay together longer.
8. Laughter Requires Timing
Laughter has a distinctive pattern. It rarely occurs in the middle of a sentence. Instead, laughter tends to occur at the end of sentences or during a break in speech, which suggests language is given the priority. According to Dr. Provine:4
"The occurrence of speaker laughter at the end of phrases suggests that a neurologically based process governs the placement of laughter in speech.
Different brain regions are involved in the expression of cognitively oriented speech and the more emotion-laden vocalization of laughter."
Comedians also use the natural tendency for laughter to grow and fade to their advantage, and will leave spaces at the end of a sentence for the audience to fill in with laughter.
9. Laughter Is Attractive
Research by Dr. Provine found that women laugh 126 percent more than men in cross-gender conversations, with men preferring to be the one prompting the laughter.
In a review of more than 3,700 newspaper personal ads, Dr. Provine revealed that women were 62 percent more likely to mention laughter, including seeking a mate with a sense of humor, while men were more likely to offer humor in their ads.
10. Some Things Can Make Virtually Everyone Laugh
While there’s no one joke that makes everyone laugh, Professor Scott found that one of the best tools for making people laugh in her lab is a clip of people trying not to laugh in a situation where it would be highly inappropriate to do so.
Researchers at California's Loma Linda University looked into the role that humor can have on your health. They broke 20 older adults into two groups – one that watched funny videos and one that sat silently for 20 minutes. Before and after the session, both groups took a short-term memory test…
The humor group showed significantly more improvement on the test, 43.6 percent compared to 20 percent in the non-humor group.5 Those in the humor group also had significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. According to the researchers, laughter represents an enjoyable tool to help counteract age-related memory decline in older adults:
“The study's findings suggest that humor can have clinical benefits and rehabilitative implications and can be implemented in programs that support whole-person wellness for older adults. Learning ability and delayed recall are important to these individuals for a better quality of life--considering mind, body, spirit, social, and economic aspects. Older adults may have age-associated memory deficiencies. However, medical practitioners now can offer positive, enjoyable, and beneficial humor therapies to improve these deficiencies.”
What else is laughter good for? Research has shown laughter may reduce stress hormones and boost your immune function,6 while also inducing optimistic feelings.7 Laughter has demonstrated a wealth of physiological, psychological, social, spiritual, and quality-of-life benefits, such that increasing numbers of health care centers are adopting laughter therapy as a form of complementary care. Opportunities that provide for group laughter, such as laughter yoga and laugh parties, are also becoming increasingly popular around the world. Just a short list of the benefits of laughter therapy are noted below:
Relaxing your muscles ||Triggering the release of your body's natural painkillers (endorphins)||Improving sleep
|Enhancing creativity and memory||Easing digestion||Enhancing oxygen intake
|Improving well-being and positive emotions||Boosting immune function||Improving blood pressure
Children laugh easily and often, but adults may forget to make room for laughter in their daily lives. If you can, incorporate laughter into your daily routine by finding what makes you laugh. Remember that you’re more likely to laugh in the company of others, so try to find the humor in life when you’re spending time with friends, family, and co-workers.
Some experts even recommend everyone get 15 to 20 minutes of laughter a day, much like you should exercise regularly and eat your vegetables. If you haven’t had your daily dose of laughter yet, check out the video below. It’s living proof that laughter is contagious…