Psychology explains why human beings laugh, and its function.
There are few things that leave a better feeling than a real laugh. Traditionally associated with well-being and comfort, laughter is an element that has always been part of our way of acting and that is an emotional expression that we share with other species such as chimpanzees.
But while we usually laugh when we feel happy and whole, we can also laugh out of nervousness, and even cynically and falsely about something that hurts, outrages, or disgusts us. In reality, we can laugh at many things and in very different ways. And although it is something that we see and experience very often, it is worth wondering what is laughter? what is it for? How many types are there? In this article we are going to do a brief exploration of the subject.
- Recommended article: “Laughter therapy: the psychological benefits of laughter”
Laughter: what is it?
What we understand by laughter is the union of a set of mouth and facial movements that we carry out at the same time as we emit. Laughing supposes an alteration of different systems such as the respiratory (the entry of air becomes irregular while the laugh lasts) and cardiac, which are stimulated by this action, while they contract and dilate a total of around a fortnight of facial muscles.
Blood flows to the face, reddening it to a greater or lesser extent, and if the laugh is sincere and strong, it is possible to tear or even experience gastrointestinal disturbances. Regarding the emission of sound, we emit a chain of sounds of the same tonality that repeats every 210 milliseconds.
Laughter is a physiological response that occurs in reaction to external or internal stimulation. It is a reaction to stimulation that helps us discharge the energy caused by certain generally emotional aspects. What exactly causes laughter is something analyzed and discussed, with differences depending on the type of emotional reaction that causes it.
Laughing is not something unique and specific to humans, but it has also been reflected in other primates, dogs and even rats. It generally arises at times when the subject feels well-being and enjoys the situation in which he is at the moment, the content of the interaction or inferred aspects of his own or that of others’ behavior.
Brain disorders during laughter
The neurological pathways that are activated during laughter can be multiple depending on the type of laugh that is being emitted, the emotions that arouse or the sincerity with which it is emitted.
If laughter is generated due to an external stimulus, such as conversation, it is first detected by Wernicke’s area of the left parietal to later connect with the hippocampus , basal ganglia and the limbic system (in which the emotional significance of the event is evaluated that will generate laughter). The brain’s reward system synthesizes and releases a torrent of dopamine if the information is valued as positive and original.
Endorphins and oxytocin are also generated , which explains the feelings of relaxation and fullness inherent in sincere laughter.
In this way, we can generally say that when it comes to laughing, the limbic system and its connection with the prefrontal cortex (which regulates social stimuli and the inhibition of emotions and contributes to information processing) is of great importance. as with the basal ganglia (especially the nucleus accumbens ) and in general the brain reward circuitry. The primary motor cortex and the premotor cortex are also linked, although in this case the laughter is usually voluntary and forced. Finally, the autonomic nervous system responses that produce redness and tearing.
Functions and benefits of laughter
We have talked about what laughter is and brain structures that are involved in them, but is it beneficial to us? What is the function of laughing?
The answer to the first question is yes, due to the different functions and benefits of laughing.
1. Allows the release of energy caused by emotions
We can imagine laughter as an explosive reaction, arising more or less suddenly. The movements carried out allow emotions to be expressed and reduce the level of internal tension that they generate on the body. This is so with both positive and negative emotions.
2. Causes physical and psychic activation
Although the previous point refers to the fact that it allows energy to be released, the truth is that another of the functions of laughter is to cause an increase in activity itself. Laughing tends to clear our minds and recharge our energy reserves, improving our mood and prompting us to act.
3. Reduces stress and pain
Laughing has been shown to increase the levels of dopamine and oxytocin, as well as that this action generates a significant decrease in the level of cortisol in the blood. In this way, laughter reduces the level of stress and anxiety. It also reduces the level of perceived pain.
4. Improve our health
One of the many benefits of laughter is the fact that it improves our state of health by improving the functioning of the immune system and oxygenation capacity, stimulating our heart rate and lowering blood pressure.
5. Function of adaptation to the social environment
Laughing is an act of communication that humans and most species that show the ability to do so use as a bonding mechanism. It is an action that facilitates social interaction and connection with others, an aspect that is enhanced because, being contagious, it facilitates the same emotional state in others. In addition, hormones are released that make it easier to feel good and close to the environment with which we laugh.
Within the social functions of laughter we find the fact that it allows us to get closer and encourage belonging to a group, as well as reducing the tensions between its members. It also allows conflict management in which the existing perspectives in the group on certain realities can be negotiated, shared and contrasted.
6. Generates sexual attraction
Various studies indicate that the sense of humor and the ability to laugh greatly influence whether one person is attracted to another. Generally, heterosexual men are attracted to women who tend to laugh in a genuine way, while women are attracted to men who, although they do not have to laugh often, show a sense of humor and know how to make them laugh.
7. Has defensive functions
Laughter also has a psychic function linked to self-defense. Through laughter the human being is able to reduce the level of fear and anxiety generated by different external or internal stimuli. It also allows us to relativize situations, and is even linked to the capacity for resilience or to overcome adversity.
It is also an element that usually arises when we become aware of cognitive dissonance, as a mechanism to reduce the level of tension that it produces in us.
8. But also offensive
Although in general, laughter is linked to positive feelings, we cannot ignore that it is also used in an aggressive way on many occasions to attack or control our peers. This is what happens when laughter is used to mock or laugh at other people. Laughter can establish an attempt by the attacker to feel superior to the attacked person and either to dominate the concrete situation or to reduce one’s state of dissatisfaction. This can occur on a conscious or unconscious level.
Different types of laughter
There are multiple classifications regarding types of laughter, and typologies can be made based on the level of intensity, the function they have, or whether the laugh in question is genuine or voluntary.
Technically hundreds of them could be described. A few are highlighted below.
1. Genuine laugh
It is the type of natural and involuntary laugh, caused by stimulation or emotions without a target for its emission. It is the kind of laughter that generates significant benefits. It is generally linked to happiness or positive aspects.
2. Simulated laughter
It is a laugh that occurs intentionally and voluntarily. Within this group, social laughter can be included. It is generally carried out when the person who broadcasts it has a specific objective, be it to belong to the group, to generate ties, to express dislike or irony or to attack someone.
3. Social laughter
This laugh is usually a subtype of the simulated, although it can also be genuine. It is about the use of laughter as a communicative element with our peers, aimed at expressing approval or appreciation or generating ties.
4. Substance-induced laughter
Some substances, medications and drugs can induce states of happiness, well-being and expansive mood in subjects that can end up causing laughter. It is also possible that they provoke laughter without awakening positive emotions.
5. Pathological laughter
Certain neurological and / or psychiatric pathologies can occur with sudden laughter, out of place or without a reason for such laughter. It can be empty laughter of content, and unless accompanied by the appropriate emotional reaction, it does not generate health benefits.
6. Laughter caused by tickling
Tickling, the pleasant stimulation of certain sensitive regions of our body such as armpits, feet, neck or even hands, can generate a reaction in the form of laughter in a large number of people. This type of laughter is special, since the stimuli that cause it are physical. However, it should be noted that they also occur in a context in which we are in contact with other people, generally in a playful environment (despite the fact that there are related torture).
7. Denigrating laughter
This type of laughter fulfills the function of ridiculing another person. It is a laugh provoked with a specific purpose, being generally simulated.
8. Nervous laugh
This type of laughter is usually genuine, although not due to pleasant feelings but to the need to lower the level of internal tension that the person suffers due to nervousness or stress. Basically the subject laughs because he does not know how to react to a situation or what to do next.
- Diez, S. (2005). Laughing, the best antistress. Mente Sana Magazine, 5; 134-136.
- Wildgruber, D .; Szameitat, DP; Ethofer, T .; Brück, C .; Alter, K .; Grodd, W. & Kreifelts, B. (2013). Different Types of Laughter Modulate Connectivity within Distinct Parts of the Laughter Perception Network. PLoS ONE 8 (5). e63441. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0063441