Friday, June 5, 2015

Fun Friday Facts #109: Why Do We Laugh?

In another Friday Facts column long, long ago, I answered the question “Why Do We Cry?” – or failed to answer it, as the case may be, because as it turns out NO ONE KNOWS (dun dun DUN). Now, literally like two years later, it finally occurred to me to address the opposite emotional response. Why do we laugh?

According to Robert R. Provine, a University of Maryland Baltimore County professor of psychology and neuroscience and author of the book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, laughter’s primary function is to strengthen social relationships. Provine and his students studied “laughter in the wild” by eavesdropping on conversations taking place in public. A full 80 to 90 percent of the 1,200 laughs Provine and his students recorded occurred in response to thoroughly unfunny remarks like “I see your point” or “It was nice meeting you, too.” A mere 10 to 20 percent of the laughs were in response to intentional jokes.

Provine believes that laughter is the oldest form of human communication, predating the first spoken languages by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Though animals don’t seem to have a sense of humor, they laugh, too. The evolutionary origins of human laughter can perhaps be seen in the laughter of apes, which takes the form of a distinctive facial expression and a rapid, open-mouthed panting. Apes laugh during play and have been known to laugh at many of the same things that human babies laugh at. Other animals, particularly rats, will laugh in response to being tickled.

Of course, there’s more than one type of laughter – laughter researchers have identified two types, which originate in two different parts of the brain. Spontaneous laughter, such as that connected to humor or being tickled, is uncontrollable and comes from an evolutionarily older part of the brain; it is most likely the original form of human laughter. Non-spontaneous laughter, such as forced or nervous laughter, originates in a different, more recent, part of the brain. Both types of laughter may be used to solidify social bonds.

It is possible to die from laughter. Excessive laughter has been known to cause heart attacks, embolisms, and strokes. Some famous people alleged to have died from laughter include:

  • Zeuxis, a Greek painter who died laughing in the 5th century BC, after an old woman commissioned a portion of the goddess Aphrodite and insisted on modeling for it herself. Way to be an asshole, Zeuxis.
  • Chrysippus, a Greek Stoic philosopher who laughed himself to death in the 3rd century BC having watched a donkey hilariously eat too many figs and drink too much wine. Sounds like that donkey wasn’t the only one who had too much wine that night.
  • King Martin of Aragon, who “died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter” in 1410. Back in the day, just about anything could kill you.
  • Thomas Urquhart, a Scottish aristocrat who died laughing in 1660 when he heard that Charles II was king. I mean, that doesn’t sound too funny.

Never fear; people are still dropping dead from laughter, because it turns out it’s not the best medicine after all. Englishman Alex Mitchell died on 24 March 1975 while watching an episode of “Kung Fu Kapers” in which a traditionally-clad Scotsman battled a man wielding a black pudding. He was later found to have had a heart condition. In 1989, Danish audiologist Ole Bentzen died laughing while watching “A Fish Called Wanda,” and in 2003, Thai ice cream man (that’s an ice cream man who was Thai, not a man who sold Thai ice cream) Damnoen Saen-um died in his sleep after two full minutes of sleep-laughter. He was 52.

Tickling has been used as a form of torture in the past – in the Han Dynasty, where it was considered a dignified form of torture fit for members of the nobility. In ancient Rome, torturers allegedly dipped a person's feet in salt and allowed a goat to lick it off. Once all the salt was gone, the feet would be re-salted, until eventually, the person’s feet would become blistered and raw and eventually the flesh itself would begin to come off.

That doesn't sound too funny either.
Image by Jon Stammers from Flickr.

Heinz Heger, a gay German imprisoned by the Nazis for his homosexuality, wrote in his book The Men with the Pink Triangle of an incident in which SS soldiers tortured a fellow prisoner viciously by tickling him. In research for his book Sibling Abuse, Vernon Wiehle discovered that tickling is a common form of abuse between siblings that is capable of engendering such extreme reactions as loss of consciousness and vomiting. While it is unknown whether or not anyone has been tickle-tortured to death, WebMD admits that the physical exertion and stress of being tickled could be sufficient to cause a brain hemorrhage or heart attack, if continued long enough.