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Scientific Studies on the Origins of Humor and Laughter

In the vibrant mosaic of human expression, few elements captivate us quite like the chime of laughter. It echoes through our shared spaces, warms our gatherings, and transcends the barriers of language, culture, and age. There is no society of humans that doesn't laugh, or doesn't have humor. It is a universal language of joy and social connection, a radiant beacon of our shared humanity. But where does this enigmatic behavior and reaction originate? As pervasive as it is in our lives, the origin of laughter remains an intriguing enigma.

In our quest to fathom this cryptic phenomenon, scholars have embarked on rigorous explorations, their studies taking them across millennia, asking one of the simplest yet most difficult questions: Why do we laugh?

There are some things all of us know about laughter. We laugh more when we're in company than alone. Laughter is contagious. Humor is considered a positive trait, one that makes us feel good and at ease. But where did humor and laughter come from?

laughing: the origins of humor
Here, we delve into seven studies conducted over the past four decades that have illuminated our understanding of laughter's origins and its profound influence on our lives.

1. Provine, R. R. (2000) - Laughter: A Scientific Investigation

The dawn of the 21st century marked a significant stride in our understanding of laughter with neuroscientist Robert Provine's groundbreaking study performed at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA. Provine demystified laughter as a social contagion, an infectious melody that weaves individuals together into a harmonious chorus. His observations revealed laughter as primarily a social construct, a vehicle for bonding and reinforcing social ties, rather than merely a response to humor. Laughter, it appeared, was a beautifully orchestrated dance of interpersonal connectivity, a testament to our innate need for social cohesion.

2. Dunbar, R. I. M. et al. (2011), University of Oxford, United Kingdom. - Social Laughter is Correlated with an Elevated Pain Threshold

Navigating further into laughter's labyrinth, Robin Dunbar and his team cast a spotlight on the physiological benefits of laughter in their 2011 study. They unveiled laughter's ability to elevate pain thresholds, hinting at the presence of endorphin release. This provided a fresh perspective, suggesting laughter's role as a tool of resilience, a defense mechanism that has evolved to help us endure, to thrive amidst adversity. Thus, our laughter emerges not only as an echo of joy but also a shield of strength, enabling us to weather the storms of life.

laughing: the origins of humor

3. Fry, W. F., & Savin, W. M. (1988) - Mirthful Laughter and Blood Pressure

An earlier but equally remarkable study conducted by Fry and Savin in 1988 at Stanford University, California, revealed the intriguing relationship between laughter and our physiological health. Their study discovered that hearty laughter could lead to decreased blood pressure, reaffirming the age-old adage that laughter truly is the best medicine. In this light, laughter transformed into a sublime healer, a soothing balm that mends our physiological well-being, and enhances our vitality. These findings raised questions about the role of laughter as an actual healing force in our bodies. Did laughter and humor begin as a way to relax our bodies to accept healing? Another theory says that perhaps the human body needs to understand that danger is over, so it can relax and shift its resources towards healing. Laughter may be a way of the brain to signal the body the current situation is either social or calm enough. After all, you don't laugh in the face of a charging tiger (I know I wouldn't).

4. Meyer, M. et al. (2007), University of Zurich, Switzerland - Humor as a Common Brain Network

A leap in technological advances allowed Martin Meyer and his team in 2007 to delve deeper into the neuroscientific realm of humor and laughter. Their findings unveiled a complex network of brain regions engaged in humor processing, thereby offering us a glimpse into the intricate cerebral choreography that orchestrates our moments of mirth. Laughter, thus, stood revealed as a magnificent ballet of neural activity, a grand spectacle of cerebral symphony.

If you'll allow me a metaphor, one might envision the prefrontal cortex (The frontal part of our frontal lobe, as in behind our forehead) as the sophisticated conductor of this cerebral orchestra, orchestrating our understanding of context and nuance.

The amygdala and insular cortex, on the other hand, play the emotive strings, kindling the spark of mirthful joy, as they are responsible for most of our emotional reactions. Meanwhile, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, as the information processor, steps forth as the discerning critic, evaluating the humorous content and the ensuing emotional response.

This fascinating study offered a rare glimpse into the intricate workings of our brains when engaged with humor, illuminating the complex neural pathways that underlie our shared moments of mirth. It underscores the profound role humor plays in our cognitive functioning, transforming our understanding of it from a mere source of amusement to a complex, multifaceted cognitive process.

5. Bryant, G. A., & Aktipis, C. A. (2014) - The Animal Nature of Spontaneous Human Laughter

The most recent of our chosen studies, conducted by Bryant and Aktipis in 2014, took a step back and examined laughter in the broader context of evolutionary biology. They proposed laughter's origins in our primate ancestors' panting during play, hinting at laughter's primal roots. This fascinating theory positioned laughter as an ancient language, a melodic echo resonating from our deep past.

puppies at play

When we see puppies and kittens play, it is almost obvious to us that they do not mean to actually hurt each other, even if they had the means to do so. They are engaging in what we call "play". Children do the same, imitating adults in little plays that are not "serious". In this way, laughter and humor can be thought of as originating in our need to tell another person: "This isn't real, I don't actually mean the things I do and say, this is just play-acting." This allows for the play to continue without others thinking this is real.

Another example might be when we see someone else getting hurt, and we laugh without meaning to. Do we enjoy their suffering, that we would laugh? The answer is no. According to this theory, laughter could be our body's way of calming itself and people around it, as if saying: "That person was hurt, but I'm OK, people around me are OK, it's not me." This would explain why sometimes we laugh when we see others fall in some way. However, when the hurt is very serious, our bodies will very rarely react with laughter. This may be a point against the theory, or it may be that such a serious situation can have dire consequences even if seen, and so we should not BE relaxed at that time.

6. Gervais, M., & Wilson, D. S. (2005) - The Evolution and Functions of Laughter and Humor

At the State University of New York, Binghamton, USA, Matthew Gervais and David Sloan Wilson proposed a compelling hypothesis in 2005 - laughter and humor, they suggested, are intrinsically tied to our evolution as social beings. Their comprehensive review argued that laughter originated as a shared expression during play amongst our early primate ancestors. This laughter, they posited, evolved into a sophisticated social tool in humans, with humor emerging as a cognitive adaptation to stimulate laughter. In essence, Gervais and Wilson portrayed humor as a crafted key, designed over eons to unlock the rich rewards of social laughter. Their work paints laughter and humor as an integral part of our shared evolutionary journey, a delightful dance of cognitive and social interplay that continues to shape our lives.

7. Hurley, M. M., Dennett, D. C., & Adams, R. B. Jr. (2011) - Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind

In a landmark study carried out at Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA, Matthew M. Hurley, Daniel C. Dennett, and Reginald B. Adams Jr. embarked on an ambitious journey in 2011 to reverse-engineer humor. They proposed a novel evolutionary theory - humor, they argued, functions as an internal 'debugging' system that helps us correct mistaken assumptions by rewarding us with laughter when we recognize them. This revolutionary perspective transforms humor from a mere source of amusement into a powerful architect of perception, shaping and refining our understanding of the world. This study, then, offers us a fresh lens to view humor and laughter, not just as echoes of amusement but as integral maestros in the grand cosmos of cognition.

laughing: the origins of humor

In conclusion...

As we look at human perception, cognition and evolutionary past, laughter emerges as a vibrant thread, weaving individuals and groups together. From the studies we have looked into, it surely seems that laughter and humor DO have a function within our bodies, whether it is to calm us down, help us navigate society, help us court others or befriend them or a method of reducing behavioral errors.

From its suggested primal origins to its profound social and physiological impacts, laughter is a complex phenomenon, a captivating mystery that continues to enchant and elude us. As we continue our scholarly sojourn into the labyrinth of laughter, we are reminded of its multifaceted beauty, its enduring charm, and its transformative power. Because if there's one definite conclusion we can come to, at the end of this investigation, it is the laughter is good for you.

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