Beyond a joke: the truth about why we laugh: Robert Provine

What lies behind the ‘spontaneity’ of laughter?


Plato and Aristotle saw it as a tool to topple the mighty. It often accompanies gruesome acts of cruelty. Most of us will use it more routinely – to win friendship and love. So what lies behind the apparent spontaneity of laughter?


Consider the bizarre events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). What began as an isolated fit of laughter in a group of 12-to 18-year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. Like an influenza outbreak, the laughter epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of at least 14 schools and afflicted about 1,000 people. Fluctuating in intensity, it lasted for around two and a half years. A psychogenic, hysterical origin of the epidemic was established after excluding alternatives such as toxic reaction and encephalitis.


Laughter epidemics, big and small, are universal. Contagious laughter in some Pentecostal and related charismatic Christian churches is a kind of speaking in tongues (glossolalia), a sign that worshippers have been filled with the Holy Spirit. Before looking askance at this practice, consider that it was present at the historic Cane Ridge revival of 1801, in Kentucky, and part of an exuberant religious tradition in which the Shakers actually shook and the Quakers quaked. Even John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, did some of his own quaking and shaking. Those experiencing the blessing of holy laughter spread it back to their home congregations, creating a national and international wave of contagious laughter. Contrast, now, the similarity between the propagation of such religious anointings and what was called the “laughing malady puzzle in Africa”. They are strikingly similar, tap the same social trait, and are an extreme form of the commonplace, not pathology.


Laughter yoga, an innovation of Madan Kataria of Mumbai, taps contagious laughter for his secular Laughing Clubs International. The laugh clubbers gather in public places to engage in laughter exercises, seeking better fitness and a good time. Kataria’s revelation was that only laughter is needed to stimulate laughter – no jokes are necessary. Meetings start with unison laughter exercises, moving on to more unusual variants. This self-described “laughing for no reason” produces real, contagious laughter and is fun for the self-selected participants, but its claimed medicinal benefits remain a matter of conjecture.


The Tanganyikan and holy laughter epidemics, and laughter yoga, are dramatic examples of the infectious power of laughter, something that most of us may have experienced in more modest measure. Many readers will be familiar with the difficulty of extinguishing their own “laugh jags”, fits of nearly uncontrollable laughter. We also share yuks with friends and join the communal chorus of audience laughter. Rather than dismissing contagious laughter as a behavioural curiosity, we should recognise it (and other laugh-related phenomena) as clues to broader and deeper issues. When we hear laughter, we become beasts of the herd, mindlessly laughing in turn, producing a behavioural chain reaction that sweeps through our group, creating a crescendo of jocularity or ridicule.


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