Ask A Scientist

Why do people laugh?

Asked by: James Glass
School: West Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Jo Ann Summerlee
Hobbies/Interests: Neopets, cooking and swimming
Career Interest: N/A

Answer from David Sloan Wilson

Professor, Binghamton University

PhD school:
Michigan State University

Research area:
Evolutionary Biology

Web page address:
website

Laughter might seem whimsical, but it is actually very important for survival and reproduction. Chimpanzee and Bonobos, our closest primate cousins, make a hoot-like sound similar to laughing when they tickle each other and engage in rough-and-tumble play. It has recently been discovered that even mice make a sound like laughter when they play, but at a frequency that we cannot hear without the help of instruments. In both cases, laughter seems to send a signal that there is nothing to fear, enabling animals to develop their skills and relationships through play. Our distant human ancestors were almost certainly laughing before they were speaking. How can we know this? Look at the evidence: laughter takes place in the "old" pre-linguistic part of the brain. Babies start laughing long before they start speaking. Even blind and deaf babies laugh. However, laughter was also incorporated into numerous higher mental functions as they evolved. Thus, we laugh uncontrollably, but we also laugh strategically to punctuate conversation, to make a good impression, to criticize people, and so on. I recently worked with a former Binghamton University student, Matt Gervais, who became interested in the evolution of laughter as a freshman and published a major review article titled "The Evolution and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach." You can download a copy of this article, and learn about other subjects from an evolutionary perspective, at the website for EvoS, Binghamton University's evolutionary studies program (http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~evos/ ). I must warn you, however, that the article is not very funny. It begins with a quote that reads "He who approaches laughter upon science bent will find it no laughing matter."

Last Updated: 9/18/13