10-Minute Talks: Why laughter matters

by Professor Sophie Scott FBA

14 Oct 2020

Two girlfriends laughing and hanging out together.

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Cognitive neuroscientist Professor Sophie Scott FBA introduces her pioneering research into laughter.


Hi! My name's Professor Sophie Scott and I’m the Director for the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London and I’m a Fellow of the British Academy. What I'm going to talk to you about today is laughter.

I am, I have to assure you, a very, very serious cognitive neuroscientist. I never set out to study laughter. I started out by studying, I consider mostly that I still do study, the human voice and the information contained therein, how our brains process this and how our brains control what we sound like when we start talking and making other noises with our voices. This means that for most of my career I’ve done a huge amount of work on speech: what I’m doing right now, speech production, speech perception. There's loads of other information in your voice. People can recognise you from your voice; they know if you're a man or a woman from your voice; they can tell your age from your voice; your socioeconomic status; your geographical origins; your mood. That is all there.

All this very complex social signal is embodied as soon as we started speaking.

For many years, I was also very interested in this question of emotion and voice. In fact, back in the 1990s when I worked in Cambridge, I got into this area because I was collaborating with my colleagues Andy Young and Andy Calder and they were very interested in emotion from the face. And actually, how humans recognise emotion has largely been studied by looking at facial stimuli and facial expressions of emotion. If I was to be unfair, I would say that's because it's a lot easier to look at faces, because you can use photographs. That's what they were doing. They had a patient who had a selective deficit of recognising from the face the emotions of fear and anger. They wrote this paper up, they sent it off to a journal, and the journal came back saying, "interesting, but you don't know this is to do with faces or the emotions, because you haven't tested any other modality". I was working on voices, so they asked me to help make some stimuli and look at whether or not the patient could recognise from another modality, from the voice for example, these signs of emotion. I came up with stimuli that fitted different emotional expressions. That's what I was looking at.

I carried on working with these because they were interesting and there's not actually very much work on them. These non-verbal expressions of emotion, like screaming if you're frightened, or going "urgh" if you're disgusted, they're very interesting. They're more like animal calls than they are like speech. They seem to be better matches for facial expressions of emotion than, say, emotionally inflected speech. I carried on looking at it. One of the things that really struck me was that everything we were looking at was always very negative. We were looking at the basic emotions, so these emotions that are recognised in all human cultures and they are: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust and surprise. So only those – only happiness is unambiguously positive. This is work based on research by Paul Ekman, a very distinguished psychologist in the US. He was the person who determined facial expressions of these emotions were recognised in all human cultures. I had a chance to ask him about why they were also very negative at a conference. He said that he thought there could be more of these basic emotions –emotions that you find in all human cultures – that were more positive, but he thought they wouldn't be necessarily well-distinguished by face. Where they might all share a smile, they might well be conveyed better by the body – body movements and the voice. I was like, well I work on voices – let's start looking at this.

As soon as you start exploring positive emotions from the voice, you run immediately into laughter. I called it amusement for many years. I thought it was the sound that you make when you are amused. And of course we do laugh when we're amused and scientifically, we find that if you ask people what makes you laugh – Robert Provine showed this – people will talk about things that are funny things, of comedy, jokes. But the other thing Robert Provine found, a very important laughter theorist from the US, was that most laughter has nothing whatsoever to do with humour. What Robert Provine noticed was that laughter is primarily a social behaviour. We laugh when we're with other people. He found that you are 30 times more likely to laugh if there is somebody else with you than if you're on your own. If you like that person, you know that person, or you love that person, the more laughter there will be. This is very interesting. We think it's about jokes and comedy – I was calling it amusement for many years – but it's primarily something that's kind of primed by other people being around us.

This is a clue as to why laughter actually matters. Because laughter is an emotional expression, but it's an emotional expression that lives almost entirely within social interactions. We do laugh when we're on our own, but we're so much more likely to laugh when there's other people with us, within those interactions with other people, the places, the spaces where laughter occurs. Laughter doesn't happen all that often. Still, humans, we do laugh at comedy jokes and humour. If you ask someone why they're laughing, that's what they'll talk about. But, if you know what was actually happening when they started laughing, people laugh at comments and statements like, "I might miss my bus", or "I will have another cup of coffee". So there's actually nothing funny there, nor was there any intention to be funny. People are laughing to show that they like the person they're with, that they’re part of the same group as that person. They can often be laughing to show that they understand what was said, or they agree with what was said, or they get some reference, or they see some allusion to some other reason why something else might have happened. So, laughter is often used in this very communicative way. In fact, what Robert Provine found, was that people who laugh most at any one point in the conversation are the people who are talking. People are laughing to get other people to join in, and to share their laughter and to show that they agree, they understand, they recognise. It's very, very complex, the use of laughter.

So we have this behaviour that we think is about jokes and humour, but is, in fact, very often an important kind of communication that is happening in social spaces. It's also something which can be purely contagious. You can catch a laugh from someone, even if you don't know why they're laughing. Again, much more likely to catch it from someone you know than someone you don't know. This is something we learn to do. We're not born showing contagious laughter. We almost certainly teach babies and children how to laugh when other people start laughing, such that by the time you're an adult, it's something that happens, often without you even noticing. It happens a lot more than you think it does. Everybody underestimates how often they laugh. Everybody laughs more than they think they do. We found in a study recently that if you look at friends having a conversation together – in our participant group, 20 pairs of friends – an average of 10 per cent of the time of that conversation between friends was spent just laughing. Both of them just laughing. That's a huge amount of time. Some people laughing even more than that.

So it's incredibly common, widely utilised behaviour that we tend almost not to notice. It's almost like a default. This is why people underestimate how often they're laughing. It's a normal behaviour. You're more likely to notice the absence of laughter maybe then, than it's presence. There was something wrong, why wasn't there laughing? What was going on? Do they not like me? That gets to another important aspect of laughter. We use it as this social emotion that lives in interactions. Within that is a very important communicative tool.

Another really key role for laughter is as an indicator of a particular kind of emotional disposition, a playfulness. It's important to note that we aren't the only animals that laugh. Mirth has been described in several other mammals. All the other apes laugh, rats laugh, foxes seem to laugh. There's probably a lot more laughter out there. The thing that's in common when you take a step back and look at laughter across mammals, is that you find it's an indication of play, playfulness. Of course, that's true when you first see laughter emerging in baby humans. You see laughter emerging in interactions like tickling and peekaboo, which are playful behaviours. So Jaak Panksepp, who did beautiful work with laughter and rats, said that at its heart, laughter is an invitation to play. By the time we're an adult, we tend not to think of our behaviour as being playful, although it frequently can be. A very important use for laughter is as a way of trying to both indicate that we are being playful – we're not being serious, this is fun – but actually using that as a way of trying to improve mood. Laughter can actually be a very, very effective way of regulating emotions, and regulating emotions in a positive direction.

There's a really lovely set of studies from Robert Levinson in the US, where he's been doing a longitudinal study of married couples. He gets the married couples together and he puts them in a stressful situation. He asks one member of the couple, "tell me something that your partner does that irritates you". Just run that one around your head for a second! What he found is that couples find that stressful. Imagine doing that. You feel stress. It's unpleasant. You can measure that physiologically – heart rate changes, galvanic skin response, which is a measure of sweat, that changes. It's a stressful thing to do. What he finds however, is that couples who deal with that unpleasant, stressful feeling with what he calls "positive emotion", things like laughter and smiling, not only immediately get less stressed, but they're also the couples that are more likely to stay together for longer and are happier in their relationship. It's not because laughter is like a little bit of magic dust that makes everything okay. It seems to be because it matters if both members of the couple laugh. If one person laughs and the other person doesn't laugh – you know one person's going [while laughing] "oh it is actually quite irritating, I can imagine, that I snore so much every night" and the first person is going, [seriously] "it's a massive problem, and I wish you'd stop." No one feels better. No one feels less stressed. The laughter only works if you laugh together.

So there's something about being able to negotiate that agreed change in mood, whereby you both start to decide this is, in fact, fun. "We are laughing, we are having fun, this is a game, this isn't serious, I know you don't mean that about my snoring" – that's actually an index of their relationship, so it's not that the laughter makes things better, it's that the stronger relationships, where you can find a way of using laughter together to negotiate a better mood, are in fact the things that are really are predictive of a happy, longer-lasting relationship and I don't think this is something that's limited to romantic relationships. I think this might be what we mean about friendship, people with whom we can use positive emotions like laughter to feel better together. I think that's where the heart of laughter starts to become really apparent. It's a phenomenally important social emotion. It actually lies at the heart of a really efficient way that people in intimate relationships, be they romantic or otherwise, can actually negotiate a way to feeling better together.

People sometimes ask me, "you work on laughter, do you find laughter very boring now?" Quite the opposite – I take my laugher very seriously now. I try and build things into my day where I know I will be able to laugh and I’ll be able to laugh with the people that I love and with the people where I will laugh most, because I’m laughing with them. That's something I started doing at the beginning of lockdown. At the end of every day at 5.30, we put aside our computers. We stopped doing our schoolwork. We stopped doing our working from home, and together we do something, doesn't really matter what, that would make us laugh. So laughter really matters. I'm glad I stumbled on it by accident. It's one of the more interesting and important things that we do, and it's hiding in plain sight. We don't even notice that we're doing it and it probably forms one of the most important parts of our day.

This talk originally took place on 14 October 2020, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

Further reading

Why we laugh, TED talk by Sophie Scott.

"I’m a scientist studying laughter – and it’s funnier than you might think", Sophie Scott for The Guardian.

"As a neuroscientist who’s done standup, I know performance anxiety is no joke," Sophie Scott for The Guardian.

Laughter is a completely social phenomenon – we are 30 times more likely to laugh if there is someone else with us”, Sophie Scott for Science Focus.

"No laughing matter: Sophie Scott", interview with Sophie Scott for The Biologist.

Lead image: Two girlfriends laughing and hanging out together. © Nick David via Getty Images.

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