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HUMOUR SPECIAL

What’s so funny? The science of laughter

TV Jayan | Updated on July 30, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

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Rats and chimps grin when tickled, but humans laugh 30 times more when the joke is on others

* Science tells us that laughter is a trait that Homo sapiens share with other primates

* While it is now known how the brain responds once a joke is decoded, the process of understanding the joke itself requires some psychological theorising

Did you find that text message you just received on your mobile phone funny? And are you still sniggering over that political meme that you chanced upon on social media?

Just what made them so funny? You don’t know really — but don’t worry, no one does. Even scientists — psychologists and neuroscientists — are struggling to unravel what makes a joke or a situation funny.

Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, US, who spent a lifetime trying to understand what triggered giggles and guffaws, till he died in October last year, once famously said: “The best laughs usually have nothing to do with great jokes”.

Provine, who roamed the streets of American cities eavesdropping on comments, hoping to hear something that would lead to laughter, called his research “sidewalk neuroscience”. Interestingly, Provine — who picked up some 1,200 such pre-laughter comments from university cafeterias, malls and sidewalks — found that laughter very rarely followed a joke. He said people laughed even when humour was not involved and humans would possibly laugh 30 times more when the joke was on others rather than on themselves.

Science tells us that laughter is a trait that Homo sapiens share with other primates. Most primate species are known to use laughter as a medium of communication. In a 2009 study, Marina Davila Ross, a primatologist at Portsmouth University in the UK, and others compared sounds of tickle-induced guffaws from young orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos with those from human infants and found an unexpected similarity.

An article in April last year in the public outreach section of the Society for Neuroscience — the most respected body of neuroscientists in the world — states that not just humans and apes, even rats laugh. Humans, it says, laugh in a series of short, 75-millisecond notes while they exhale. Whatever its form, laughter is an efficient and expansive way of developing bonds and trust within species.

Laughter does more than that — it makes you feel better. Scientists studying laughter have always been interested in knowing what happens in the brain when a person laughs. The reaction, they say, is similar to that when one is rewarded.

“Whether it is tickling or humour, there are some regions in the brain that would witness higher activity. These are the regions in the brain — ventromedial prefrontal cortex and ventral striate — that are a part of the reward system. These are the same regions that get activated when you are getting money or winning a game,” says researcher Prateekshit Pandey, who is studying the neuroscience of political humour at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, US.

Pandey, who is from Delhi and did his undergraduate studies in computer science at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology in New Delhi before moving to the US for doctoral studies in 2016, says that some studies show how the brain reacts to individual modalities of humour — text, audio, visual or audiovisual — but very little is known about a common system in the brain that works across all modalities.

“When you laugh at something that is audiovisual, which is more complex than laughing at something that is in the form of a text, there would be more brain regions participating in decoding — or understanding — the humour. But I haven’t come across a common neural mechanism across all the modalities,” Pandey says.

While it is now known how the brain responds once a joke is decoded, the process of understanding the joke itself requires some psychological theorising. There are essentially three kinds of theories that explain why something is funny. Superiority Theory states that a person feels superior to someone else and thus laughs at the latter’s expense. Joking about something that is stressful or tense or a taboo eases tension and is called Relief Theory.

The third is the Incongruity Resolution Theory. In this, the joke artificially creates an incongruity; the brain decodes it and the person gets a feeling of being rewarded. Researchers say most slapstick comedies or puns fall in this category. Pandey cites an example: What’s the difference between a guitar and a fish? You can’t tuna fish.

People would seldom describe a joke as aggressive, but Pandey argues that humour is rooted in aggression. “Every joke is aggressive in some sense — some may be more, some less. This aggression is actually targeted at someone or something. If you are able to make a joke about someone very effectively, then that person gets associated with ‘being a joke’ and the seriousness (of the issues raised by that person) gets reduced,” he says.

A good example of this, he says, is the humour that has been generated around Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. “One of the reasons why the Congress got hit so badly in the 2014 elections was that Rahul Gandhi became a joke. He became a meme. That was milked really well by the current dispensation. I do not know whether any planning had gone into making these jokes,” he observes.

Research in the past has shown that those who can crack jokes are perceived to be intelligent by people and, more important, politicians who can take a joke on themselves are seen to be more likeable, says Pandey.

Science has been doing its bit, but it is time politicians invested in humour. After all, he who laughs last, laughs longest.

TV Jayan

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Published on July 30, 2020
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