Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tickled pink: a look at laughter

Thursday meetings at the RS headquarters vary from loud to so boring that pen fights ensue just to beat the tedium. One of two things invariably happen, however; either someone will crack a lame joke and some of the others will laugh along while others groan and roll their eyes, or else one member will say something, and someone will pipe up 'Yeah, that's not funny' and an argument will ensue. See, everyone has different notions of what is funny. We even asked our readers on Facebook what they think is funny, and ended up with a whole variety of answers. There were those that advocated lame puns, while others thought blonde jokes were hilarious. There were varying degrees of acceptance of racist jokes; and completely polarized views on the subject of a man slipping on a banana peel. Which made yours truly wonder: why do we laugh?

Evolution says...
...that we aren't the first creatures on the planet to respond to whatever it is that we think is humorous. Apes do it, gorillas do it, even rats squeal when you tickle them. Laughter is a social action, an act of bonding. "Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group," says cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte. Philosopher John Morreall goes on to say that the first human laughter may have begun as a gesture of shared relief at the passing of danger. And since the relaxation that results from a bout of laughter inhibits the biological fight-or-flight response, laughter may indicate trust in one's companions. Natural laughter is spontaneous and counter-intuitive; you don't plan on laughing, it just happens. By examining the stimuli that elicit the laughter-like response, researchers have come to conclude that we laugh to communicate a playful intent. This is why you'll find yourself laughing at the end of a rollercoaster ride. This is also why shows like Jackass are popular amongst a segment of viewers, usually the very macho males, although this isn't always the case.

Nonspontaneous laughter is usually a way to control the behaviour of others. You know how in the movies, when the boss starts laughing, all the chamchas in the vicinity follow suit, until everyone in the room is laughing uproariously at something that might not even be funny? It may look hyperbolic, but that's exactly how things work, according to some social scientists. Studies have found that dominant individuals -- the boss, the tribal chief or the family patriarch -- use humor more than their subordinates. John Morreall believes that controlling the laughter of a group is one way of exerting control over the emotional climate of the group. One might also choose humour to diffuse a potentially tense situation; in this case, the laughter is In such cases, laughter serves as a conciliatory gesture or as a way to deflect anger. If the threatening person joins the laughter, the risk of confrontation may lessen.

What's so funny?
While the scientists are pretty much agreed on the social function of laughter, it still doesn't tell you why we laugh at the things we laugh at. As we grow and develop a sense of humour, our tastes differ, and this also applies to what we find funny. William F. Fry, a psychiatrist and laughter researcher at Stanford University talks about two necessary conditions for a situation to be funny. The first requirement is the “play frame,” which puts a real-life event in a nonserious context and allows for an atypical psychological reaction. So while we're not likely to laugh if someone falls to his death from a 10-storey building, when Wile E Coyote chases the Roadrunner off a cliff and waves to the audience before he crashes down will inspire giggles. There's the relief factor, the rush you get from knowing that it's alright, that makes it funny.

Another crucial characteristic is incongruity, which can be seen in the improbable or inconsistent relation between the “punch line” and the “body” of a joke or experience. So we're going to laugh at something 'weird' or unexpected. Cue in some slapstick comedy, stuff like a pie flying into someone's face, or one of those dhishum-dhishumite fight scenes in Bangla movies, or even an Edward Cullen standing in the sunlight in all his glittery glory declaring 'This is the skin of a killer!" You get the picture.

Traditional humour theory also points towards a third factor: the superiority factor. We laugh at jokes that focus on someone else's mistakes, stupidity or misfortune. We feel superior to this person, experience a certain detachment from the situation and so are able to laugh at it. Earliest examples of this theory include Plato, who attributed to Socrates the view "the essence of the ridiculous is an ignorance in the weak, who are thus unable to retaliate when ridiculed". Here's where we fit in the diabolical cackling of the supervillain, the jeering laughter of the schoolyard bully, or just some Joe laughing at a Sardarji joke.

Look who's laughing now
Further studies have shown how age affects what we find funny. Babies and children are discovering the world around them, so anything that's unfamiliar to them is either scary or ridiculous. Toilet humour a big favourite. Interestingly, kids also tend to find cruel stuff funny...apparently it helps develop self assertiveness. Teenagers in all their adolescent awkwardness find humour in food, sex, authority figures, and anything that adults find offensive. Sometimes they use humour as a shield, or to feel superior. Adults, ideally, have matured enough to be less judgemental, and for them humour is subtle, and usually related to things that stress us out, like bosses, or marriage, or in Russel Peter's case, his father associating him with gay Indians.

Culture plays a role too. What's funny in some cultures may be offensive in another, as Borat clearly showed us. And sometimes, if the joke is relevant only to a particular culture, the humour might just escape you.

Ultimately, what it all boils down to is that what you find funny depends a lot on who you are, where you're from, and this sentence is ending right here before it sounds like a Backstreet Boys lyric. We'll wrap this up with a corny one that's been circulating amongst RS members for a while:

Q: What does a football player use to light his cigarette?
A: A Match!

Fun facts about laughter

* The first laughter appears at about 3.5 to 4 months of age, long before we're able to speak. Laughter, like crying, is a way for a preverbal infant to interact with the mother and other caregivers.

* In 1962, in the African country that is now Tanzania, three school girls began to laugh uncontrollably. Within a few months, about 2/3 of the school's students had the symptoms, and the school closed. The contagion spread, and eventually affected about a thousand people in Tanzania and neighboring Uganda.

* There is some historical evidence that tickling was used as a method of torture and execution in centuries past. In one reported and exceedingly bizarre technique, a victim was tied up and the soles of his feet were covered with salt. A goat was then brought in to lick the salt, causing intense tickling. If kept up for long enough, the stress and exertion of laughing -- and squirming -- could have eventually brought on cardiac arrest or a brain hemorrhage.

By Sabrina F Ahmad

Reference: msnbc.com, howstuffworks.com, scientificamerican.com, men.webmd.com



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