(…) one of the interesting things about the data that we have on laughter and emotional regulation is that actually it is not something you do in the mirror; it’s something you do with other people.
Prof Sophie Scott is a British neuroscientist and Wellcome Trust senior fellow at University College London, researching the neuroscience of voices, speech, and laughter. She is also Deputy Director of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Prof Scott’s current work and interests are focused on the neurobiology of speech perception, including the functional sub-systems of the human auditory cortex, the evolution of speech, the difference between intelligibility and comprehension, and profiles of recovery in aphasia. Her TEDx talk “Why we laugh” has been viewed by over 2.5 million people and counting. Prof Scott could also be seen doing stand-up comedy at the regular stand-up comedy event thrown by the University College London called Bright Club.
Prof Scott, laughter is a strange-looking phenomenon—people all of a sudden show their teeth, start to produce noises that are not always very graceful and flattering, their faces become red, and so on. What is laughter and why do we do it?
Laughter is primarily a social behaviour so it’s something we do when we are around other people. The other thing that is pretty true to say is that laughter is very often involuntary, or can be involuntary, so these are things that we don’t necessarily try to guide or control. There are many reasons for laughter—the fact that we laugh around other people seems to have less to do with comedy and humour, and more to do with social processing and social bonding. So we laugh, making and maintaining social bonds with people; we also like to show that we know people, that we like people, we understand them, and we agree with them, so we do all of that with laughter and quite often very interluded with human speech. And the final point probably is that—I am going back to the involuntary aspect of laughter—when we laugh really hard, we start to produce a much stronger movement of the chest wall than when we are normally speaking, and that means we produce very different sounds. We are forcing out much more air and this leads us to produce sounds with very high pitch, very squeaky noises, and so on.
Is laughter unique to human kind or do other species benefit from it as well?
We are not the only animal that laughs. For a long time, people thought that we were the only animal that laughed. Laughter’s been quite well described in other apes—chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans—they laugh, and that looks and sounds quite like human laughter. But laughter has also been described in rats. And between rats, humans and orangutans, the thing that seems to connect laughter is the social interaction: being around other members of your species and actually interacting with them. So, the best common example is tickling, but you also see it in play.
It is interesting, from an evolutionary perspective, why and how laughter has evolved. Laughter seems to deprive us of a great deal of our muscle control, so much so at times that people lose control of their excretory system. Laughter makes us quite vulnerable, generally speaking, which would not come in handy when attacked by a predator. Why would you reckon laughter has remained with us?
I think this is true—we do become vulnerable when we laugh and, exactly like you say, there is this mechanism that makes us lose muscle control. People become weak and floppy when they laugh and it doesn’t seem to be particularly beneficial in an evolutionary sense. And there is a condition called laughing incontinence, or giggle incontinence, which is quite strongly associated with particularly younger people, but can continue throughout life, where people simply urinate when they start laughing and it seems to be part of that same mechanism. We don’t really understand why this is. We know that it happens but we don’t know a lot about how it happens; we don’t really know how it happens. It’s possible that the link is between playful behaviour and laughter. We don’t really know if the same loss of control happens with other animals, so I think for this one we just have to say—do you know what? We need more research because we just don’t know enough yet.
We know that laughter in inter-racially, internationally and universally recognised. Around the globe, people recognise laughter as an expression of joy, pleasure, approval, neurotic tension-release, etc., but generally as an expression of positive feelings. Do you know if some countries are known to laugh more as a whole than others, and would that be connected to their overall satisfaction? (with reference to the World Happiness report, where Bulgaria persistently takes the last place)
I can’t say for sure because I don’t think we have done the systematic studies, but I do know that some cultures consider laughter to be a lot less appropriate than other cultures. In Japan, people do laugh—there are many situations in which Japanese people will laugh, but laughter is not considered to be very appropriate or polite behaviour in the workplace so people won’t laugh in what people there consider to be important situations like at work or at a meeting. We don’t know enough about how that varies across different cultures; there just aren’t such systematic studies beyond this kind of discussion around appropriateness, which is very ad hoc, and we also don’t know how that relates to happiness. We just don’t know. There are very, very few studies on laughter, and there are not enough studies on laughter in my understanding. So I think what we have to say, rather disappointingly, is that we need more research on this topic because we don’t really know what the relationship is between laughter and happiness—even in the case that the more the culture laughs, the happier they are.
A growing body of research suggests that less economically developed societies with higher corruption rates are prone to judge a smiling individual as less intelligent than the same non-smiling individual (please check the synopsis here). What is your interpretation of that cultural phenomenon? *
My suspicion is that it may be less to do with what is happening when people smile and more to do with trusting people. So we don’t know what would happen in these same cultures where there are high levels of corruption in terms of accepting other signals of emotion. And that would be my suspicion. It’s probably that people always find reasons to dislike other people when they want to, whether for smiling too much or laughing too much. It’s not at all uncommon for people to judge other people and that has less to do with laughing or smiling and more to do with your determination to dislike that person or those people. So my suspicion would be that it’s more to do with trust and less to do with what smiling actually means.
Do you know whether laughter has changed over time? Have we always laughed the same way or are there trends in laughter?
It is very difficult, of course, to say because we only recently started to be able to make recordings of people’s laughter. Anecdotally, it is quite interesting that if I listen to old radio clips of laughter from 60 years ago, the recordings sound different and the quality is not the same as now, but actually, a lot of the laughter does sound very similar. I suspect that a lot of spontaneous laughter, because it’s not a particularly controlled behaviour, that it probably hasn’t changed. Whereas social laughter, which is something we learn to do, might change in time because a lot of other things we do when we communicate, like how we speak, really changes over time and that’s because these are things we pick up from other people.
What is the physiological effect of laughter and how does it help with stress reduction?
In terms of laughter and stress reduction, there are some physiological changes that occur associated with reduced stress when we laugh. Those are reduction in adrenaline—you become more relaxed when you laugh—and on a more long-term scale, you also get reduction of cortisol, which is the hormone that is produced in greater amounts when you are stressed. So it does seem to be something that is more relaxing and that helps you become less stressed. There is also an increase in the up-take of the circulating endorphins when you laugh, which is probably to do with just the exercise involved in laughing, and that gives you a mild energy boost which causes a pleasant feeling. So, we definitely can see physiological changes, which are associated with feeling better and less stressed, when you’ve been laughing.
What is the social function of laughter and in what way does laughter help people to bond?
On a more basic level, we don’t know. It just seems to be that’s what we do. Dr Jaak Panksepp, who does the research with rats, says that at its heart laughter is an invitation to play. And I think there is that kind of positive valence—unharmful, non-stressed kind of activity—that you are inviting people to kind of go to, emotionally. There is some interesting data showing that in established relationships, as in couples, people can use laughter as a way to regulate their emotions together. I think that’s quite interesting because it suggests that we are not only signalling to each other that we like one other but if you are with somebody that you have some kind of emotional bond with, you can build on that to make yourselves both feel better in difficult situations by when and how you use laughter. I think that everybody would like to know more about that.
Can enforced laughter change the neurological functioning of the body? To put it in a more practical context—can, for instance, laughter yoga help with depressive conditions, or can laughing for three minutes a day in front of the mirror improve our general levels of happiness?
Certainly, in a very literal sense we do know that forced laughter, or pretend laughter, does seem to have some of the same endorphin effects; we also know that because laughter primes laughter, laughter is very contagious, so even forced laughter can result in genuine laughter. That is the principle of laughter yoga: fake it till you make it. You pretend to laugh until you actually do start laughing. So, you will see a lot of suggestions that laughter yoga can help with depression or that if you make yourself laugh in the mirror every day it can improve your levels of happiness. But there is simply no evidence that of that. People would like that to be true, and there are certainly some people who really, really enjoy laughter yoga—by no means does everybody find it enjoyable—but we just don’t know. And I think one of the interesting things about the data that we have on laughter and emotional regulation is that actually, it is not something you do in the mirror; it’s something you do with other people. So, it’s hard to separate the relationship between the laughter and the social component from the benefits of this behaviour.
Is laughter a habit that could be learned?
Yes, it is, because we know that a lot of the social use of laughter is absolutely learnt. So, you definitely can prime and encourage it. Laughter in itself is a prepose and response. You don’t need to have seen it or heard it to laugh. Deaf and blind babies laugh and can be encouraged to do it. We know from research in rats, for example, that the more you tickle a baby rat, the more it’ll laugh when it’s tickled as an adult. So it’s definitely a behaviour that can be encouraged and we definitely do learn to laugh.
How did you choose your field of academic interest?
I have always been interested in sound, music and speech, and about twenty and some years ago I started doing more work on emotion and the voice. That’s what really led me to laughter. But I didn’t go straight into laughter; I was interested in looking at positive, as well as negative, emotions from the voice and that’s how laughter came into the studies and then as soon as you start looking at laughter, you realise it’s kind of everywhere.
You do stand-up comedy on the side. What inspired you to get on stage?
I do do some stand-up comedy on the side and, actually, I only got into this because University College London, where I am based, runs a regular event called Bright Club where they get their academics to do stand-up comedy. And when I first heard about this, I thought that it sounded like the worst thing in the world. But then I got interested in doing it because a colleague of mine did it, and he said he really enjoyed it. I thought, “If he can do it, I can do it,” and it has been very interesting as a discipline. But it has also been a very interesting way of kind of finding a whole new perspective on laughter because it has made me think very differently about laughter and it makes me look audience laughter very differently. A lot of what you do on stage as a comedian is basically managing and priming the audience to laugh, so it’s been a very interesting sideways look, an alternative look at laughter. It’s also very interesting to get to meet people who do it for a living because they have a very interesting perspective on laughter and it’s always useful and helpful to get yourself out of your comfort zone and find out more about what you think you already know.
*Sofia was just recently chosen as the most smiling city in Bulgaria, with the country leading the EU in corruption.