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Laughter: Not for the Joke

Why do some people burst out laughing when someone falls down or gets hit, while others don't even smile? Why do certain situations provoke laughter in some people but not in others? Why do not girls and boys laugh at the same things? Why do not the events that provoke laughter in kids have the same effect on adults, and vice versa? Before researching the subject, laughter was just that and nothing more: a set of sounds, gestures and movements that are emitted when something or someone seems funny to us. An instinctive phenomenon, difficult to control, with a more playful objective than any other. But, then, if laughter is an instinctive phenomenon, which is part of our biological repertoire, it must have a function more linked to survival than to pure and simple amusement.

It is not said that entertainment, joy, pleasure and everything linked to positive emotions, are little. On the contrary, the benefits of laughter are documented as like: generate endorphins, reduce stress, release fear and anguish, placate anger, change our mental attitude, improve heart rate and pulse, promote digestion and a lot more utilities. What is said is this: why do some of us laugh at some things, while others laugh at others? What is this instinctive response of separating ourselves by those things that amuse us? Then it is found that the brain recognizes perfectly when laughter is false. And what happens in these cases is that it is not contagious; because it is not genuine, it does not provoke laughter in the listener.

Figure 1: Chantal Joffe's painting titled Yellow Sweater and Knee Socks (2016).

It is very common that we find ourselves faking laughter in social situations, such as a job interview or on a first date that looks interesting. We all know that we are faking it: the person pretending to laugh and the person pretending not to realize that the other person is faking it.

We have a mechanism in our brain whose goal is to make it clear to us that there are things that do not make us laugh and things that do.

There is a documentary that talked about an episode of contagious laughter in Tanzania in 1960. It was so bad that they even had to close a school. They say that the laughter plague lasted 18 months and spread throughout the country. Except for these extreme cases, experts say that laughter becomes more contagious, not only when it is genuine, but when we know the people who laugh.

Human beings, evolutionarily speaking, are the product of chance: evolution is the result of fortuitous genetic mutations, consolidated by natural selection that chooses those changes that are beneficial for the survival of the organism. Everything we are and have today is the product of a detailed and millenary selection of its usefulness for our survival. So, the question that torments is what is so useful for our survival, to be able to distinguish 100% a true laugh from a false laugh?

Figure 2: Cover image of Robert Provine's novel Laughter (2000).
Why do we laugh?

Thousands of years ago people laughed when a person was tortured and killed in the public square. And not so long ago, unfortunately, we laughed at sexist, homophobic or racist jokes. We are 30 times more likely to laugh with other people than we are alone (Provine, 2010). And there is more: we laugh more with friends than with strangers. Some pathologies, such as psychopathy for example, are strongly related to enjoying laughing at others (Proyer, 2012). Characteristic of a manipulative, impulsive and insensitive lifestyle, experts say.

Yes, as you can see: that shot of positivity is not the only reason why we laugh. We also do it involuntarily and automatically, for social reasons.

Laughter as a passport to belonging. We are programmed to laugh, genuinely, only with those whom we feel identified in their way of seeing the world: friends, partners, co-workers, neighbors. It is a hyper-fast and effective check that allows us to recognize those people with whom we are on the same page, with whom we share the same philosophy of life. And, therefore, it is also a litmus test to identify people we can trust, with whom we can feel comfortable expressing our ideas, either because we think alike, or very similar. That is how we build relationships with our partners and friends, because of all those the things we have in common. Then, when we stop resembling each other, we start to separate.

As it is said before about psychopathies, laughter is also a part of that. In short, laughter is not so much about whether something is funny or not, but it is always about giving a message: clear and instinctive, about our true intentions, about with whom, or whom, it is worthwhile to take root. It is a more genuine and transparent information system than words.

Gelotology: the cool science

Gelotology is the science that studies laughter. Stanford University psychiatrist William F. Fry was the founder after researching it back in 1964. Scientists, in this discipline, discovered that all of us, both animals and humans, have two types of laughter: one true and one false. Those both correspond to the two evolutionary forms of language: one involuntary and the other voluntary, and that is why, when evaluating them in scanners, the activation of different brain areas is observed when one or the other occurs.

In fake laughter, those brain areas linked to the analysis of meaning and mentalization are activated: what is Pepito laughing about, what is Juanita thinking are some examples of what we may be ruminating about when we laugh at a fake laughter. While with true laughter, brain areas linked to the auditory cortex are activated: we focus on the sound that we immediately and unequivocally identify as authentic. In addition, scientists say that genuine laughter is observed longer and with more air pauses, which occurs when both corners of the lips are raised at the same time to meet the so-called crow's feet that form around the eyes. The other social variants, weaker, always begin with a slight asymmetry in the corners of the lips.

Figure 3: Brain imagine showing activity for both real and fake laughter (2013).

In short, laughter is not so much about whether something is funny or not, but always about giving a message: clear and instinctive, about our true intentions, about with whom, or whom, it is worthwhile to take root. It is a more genuine and transparent information system than words.

Bibliographical references

Carey, B. (2019, October 29). Robert Provine, an Authority on Laughter, Is Dead at 76. The New York Times. Robert Provine | CDI 2013. (2013, December 19). [Video]. YouTube.

Kern, M. (2019, April 8). Human motor cortex relies on sparse and action-specific activation during laughing, smiling and speech production. Communications Biology.

Kwon, D. (2017, May 1). The Brain Can Distinguish between Real and Fake Laughter. Scientific American.

Manninen, S., Tuominen, L., Dunbar, R. I., Karjalainen, T., Hirvonen, J., Arponen, E., Hari, R., Jääskeläinen, I. P., Sams, M., & Nummenmaa, L. (2017). Social Laughter Triggers Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(25), 6125–6131.

McGettigan, C. (2014, March 27). Brain images reveal how we distinguish real and fake laughter. The Conversation.

P. (2019, May 4). What’s So Funny? On Psychology and Neuroscience.

P. (2016, March 6). Dissecting the Meaning of Laughter. On Psychology and Neuroscience.

RAUL ESPERT. (2009, April 24). La risa: Robert Provine (2) [Video]. Dailymotion.

Robert Provine: Cracking the Laughing Code. (2010, February 2). [Video]. YouTube.

Visual sources

Cover image/Figure 1: Joffe, C. (2016). Yellow Sweater and Knee Socks. [Oil on canvas]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Provine, R. (2000). Laughter: A Scientific Investigation [Image]. Amazon.

Figure 3: On Psychology and Neuroscience. Psyneuro. (2013). [Graph]. PSYCHNEURO.


Author Photo

María José Puebla

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