Ask 100 people that question, and 99 of them would probably say “things that are funny”. But that turns out not to be the case. Tom Stafford writes at Mind Hacks:
“Most people would guess that we laugh because something is funny. But if you watch when people actually laugh, you’ll find this isn’t the case. Laughter expert Robert Provine spent hours recording real conversations at shopping malls, classrooms, offices and cocktail parties, and he found that most laughter did not follow what looked like jokes. People laughed at the end of normal sentences, in response to unfunny comments or questions such as “Look, it’s Andre,” or “Are you sure?”. Even attempts at humour that provoked laughter didn’t sound that funny.”
The areas that control laughter in the brain are ancient, as deep as those that control breathing and reflexes. Even deaf people who have never heard “laughter” naturally make “laughter-like” noises. You can trigger laughter by brain stimulation, but we are less sure what stimulates it in a social context.
It is that very social context that completes the definition of what laughter is, and why we do it. There are several remaining questions as to why we laugh, but you should head over to Tom’s column for more info … mostly because there’s a great link to a man tickling a gorilla that any primate would smile at.
In other news, reading this taught me that some researchers go out and record people’s conversations. That lends the question: Do they know they are being recorded? And if not, picturing these guys in the field (AKA “mall food court”) is making me giggle. It’s probably a social thing.