Laughter is a primitive reflex we share with most animals; even rats laugh. But human laughter involves highly developed brain regions that allow us to "get" the joke, and it has essential social functions in all known cultures.

Our Ancient Laughing Brain
  by Silvia H. Cardoso, Ph.D.

Brazilian behavioral biologist Silvia H. Cardoso explores this interplay between brain biology and culture, asking why laughter has such power over our mental and physical health.

Courtesy of Cerebrum
Reprinted with permission of The Dana Press

Try to recall the last time you laughed. A funny situation? A Jay Leno line or a ludicrous home video? Maybe. More likely, though, the situation was not obviously funny; no one cracked a joke. There was probably no special occasion for your laughter.

This is no joke: as much as 80 percent of our laughter has nothing to do with humor.
Neurobiologist Robert Provine, who observed some 1,200 conversations in shopping malls, classrooms, and other public places, discovered that we laugh in extraordinarily diverse situations (1). We tend not to notice this because we seldom consciously control our laughter.

It turns out that we most often laugh because someone else is laughing, as though laughter were indeed contagious. We also smile or laugh when we greet someone, bid farewell, flirt, or talk about almost any subject—even one that ostensibly does not evoke laughter. We laugh in moments of happiness, pleasure, or joy, but also when feeling pain, helplessness, or embarrassment. Although we laugh when tense, nervous, or agitated, laughing is inherently fun, taking us back to childhood playfulness.

Laughter is universal to human behavioral biology. People of all cultures and through all historical periods laugh, although laughter’s social role and the situations that provoke it may vary widely. Such a pervasive behavior does not evolve without reason, of course. I believe that laughter is not only good medicine for our physical bodies; it has important emotional and social functions.

The Author

Silvia Helena Cardoso, PhD. Psychobiologist, Master and Doctor in Sciences, 
Founder and editor-in-chief, Brain and Mind , State University of Campinas.
Director and Vice-President, Edumed Institute.
Imitation or Instinct?
Wild Laughter
The Laughing Brain
Humor: Evolved Ticklishness?
Appreciating Humor
Why Laughing Is Good Medicine
Laughter’s Social Power
When Laughter Is Not Funny
The Risks of Not Playing
A Better World of Laughter


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