Why Are We Laughing? The Causes That Make Laughter Something Innate

These are the causes that make us evolve to laugh.

Why do we laugh?

For a long time, the focus of attention has been on why we are sad or why we suffer from a disorder, with the clear intention of “correcting” the problem.

However, what many psychologists and psychiatrists have forgotten is understanding why we laugh, to encourage laughter and promote long-term psychological well-being.

Although research has been expanding this question a little more in recent years, the truth is that this question still raises many unknowns. Let’s take a closer look at this question.

Why do we humans laugh?

Throughout the history of psychology, much attention has been paid to the negative and pathological aspects before the positive ones when trying to understand how they originate. Be it anxiety, stress, depression or anger, these emotions have been extensively studied, with the intention of figuring out how to correct them. On the other hand, positive emotions have been seen only as the desired result, without understanding why they occur.

Fortunately, the vision has been changing. Currently, it is about understanding the origin of the person’s discomfort, making them relate in a healthier way and achieving well-being, but understanding how to produce that positive situation and maintain it. This idea has been widely defended in currents such as positive psychology, led by Martin Seligman, promoting the acceptance and understanding of positive emotions, without pathologizing negative emotions or treating them as terribly undesirable.

Laughing is undoubtedly good, having multiple benefits on an organic level. It has been related not only to our having greater physical and emotional well-being, but it also acquires a very important role at an evolutionary level, demonstrated in our social relationships. Despite all this, it has not been until a long time ago that there has been an attempt to address laughter in a scientific way, with the intention of answering the question of why we laugh. That question so simple and, at the same time, so complex, that its answer still remains, broadly speaking, a mystery.

The importance of laughing

Happiness, joy, humor and laughter are positive phenomena necessary for our body. In most cases, and as long as it occurs in the right contexts, these emotions have a clear adaptive function, on a personal and social level. Normally, when we laugh with other people we are acting in a clearly prosocial way, giving them signals that we enjoy being with them, something that enhances relational bonds.

Laughter is a very important non-verbal component when it comes to communicating. It is the non-explicit way of indicating that what we are saying is either a joke or something that should be interpreted with humor. For example, if we say something that seems to be serious but, at the same time, we laugh, it is as if we are taking iron out of the matter. Soften the blow and avoid having an awkward moment with other people, maintaining relationships.

And this is where it acquires its evolutionary importance. Laughter is a phenomenon that has been observed in other species, many of them close to humans (bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans) and has also been seen in foxes. Laughter in the animal world serves to indicate that, when a certain action is being carried out, it is not serious, for example in “fights” or biting between foxes. It is his way of saying that “they are just playing, that there is nothing to worry about.

Another important aspect of laughter is its regulatory function of group behavior, attributed to the fact that it can be infected. As with yawning and posture, laughter is contagious, causing members of a group to synchronize laughing all at the same time, even if they have no clear reason for it.

The reason why laughter is contagious has to do with some very important neurons for humans: mirror neurons. These neurons are very important in our behavior, since it is what allows us to replicate the gestures of others. The same would happen with laughter: seeing another person laugh, these neurons would be activated and we would replicate their behavior.

What are the benefits of laughter?

Laughter has a very positive influence on an organic level. Stimulates the immune system, which translates into greater resistance against pathogens. It has also been observed that thanks to it our pain threshold increases, that is, it makes us less sensitive to pain. It is for this reason that therapies such as laughter therapy have proven useful in hospital settings and various medical treatments. Although the disease is not cured, the person who suffers from chronic pain does not feel it as much.

Laughing has been observed to contribute to a reduction in cholesterol levels and an improvement in oxygenation of the blood. You should not think that laughing is synonymous with running a marathon, but it does turn out to be good aerobic exercise. Thanks to its effects, it has been possible to relate being a smiling person with having up to 40% fewer vascular problems, making it possible to live an average of four and a half years longer. That is to say, it could be said that the popular saying of “laughing lengthens life.”

But, in addition to the physical, it is obvious that laughter influences our mental health. The act of laughing helps quell anger, which, in addition to reducing the risk of heart problems, prevents relationship problems. In addition, it contributes to raising the mood, increasing the levels of dopamine and endorphins, hormones involved in psychological well-being.

What happens in our brain when we laugh?

Thanks to modern neuroimaging techniques, it has been possible to see how the brain behaves when we laugh.

First, for laughter to occur it is necessary for our brain to interpret a received stimulus as incongruous. That is, when we interact with the world, our brain expects things to happen according to its rational predictions. If something goes out of that reasoning, the brain interprets it as an incongruity, which surprises you.

This is easy to understand when they tell us a joke. We are amused because the “punchline” has surprised us. This perception of surprising incongruity would occur in the dorsolateral prefrontal region and the temporoparietal junction of the dominant hemisphere.

Later, and in response to this incongruity, the brain activates the reward circuit. It does this by releasing dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter that produces that pleasant sensation associated with laughter and happiness. It is for this reason that it can be said that laughter is very closely related to other pleasant phenomena, in which the reward circuit is also activated, such as drug use, sex, being in a social relationship or eating .

The phenomenon of humor

In our species, laughter is innate, beginning to manifest itself after the first five weeks of life. The fact that laughter is something universal can be verified with deaf, blind or deafblind people. In these three groups, as long as there is no comorbid disorder associated with relational problems, laughter is a phenomenon that occurs naturally, even if they have never seen and / or heard it.

Anything, however simple and banal it may be, can make us laugh. However, laughter should not be confused with humor, a component that, although closely related to it, is not universal. Humor depends on cultural, personality and developmental factors, making each person have a very different sense of what makes them laugh.

It is for this reason that there are more serious people than others, since their idea of ​​what is funny can be much more strict than ours. Also factors such as age and gender influence. Women laugh more, enjoying humor more, since it has been seen that in them two specific areas of the brain related to the brain are activated: that of language and that of short-term memory.

It has also been seen that we do not all laugh in the same way. The psychologist Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions, was able to differentiate up to 16 different types of smiles and laughs, each with a different emotional meaning and interpretation. In addition, research on how true or false is laughter has been investigated, having as a pioneer in these studies Guillaume Duchenne, who observed that the way in which the eyes are narrowed in false laughter is very different from how it is done in the truly.

Pathological laughter syndrome

In the same way that laughter can be synonymous with happiness and imply multiple benefits at an organic level, it can also be an indication that a serious problem is being suffered. There are laughs that are caused by stress, anxiety, tension or as a result of a neurological injury.

Laughter that is dysfunctional, manifesting itself in an uncontrolled way and with excessive intensity is what is known as pathological laughter syndrome, which can also transform into tears and quickly alternate between euphoria and sadness.

This syndrome can be seen in multiple medical and psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, various types of dementias, Angelman syndrome, epilepsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, or brain tumors. . In these cases, laughter is an indicator that a health problem is being suffered and medical, surgical, psychiatric and psychological intervention is required.

Bibliographic references:

  • Gervais, M. & Wilson, DS. (2006). The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: A synthetic approach. The Quarterly review of biology. 80. 395-430. 10.1086 / 498281.

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