Among Bill Clinton's post-White House ventures, one of the more striking is
his campaign to reverse trends in childhood obesity. It's been remarkable for
its ambition, and for the scope of its potential benefits. But perhaps most of
all, it's been remarkable to see someone of Clinton's typically diet-oblivious
gender speak publicly about laying off the cheeseburgers.
But laughter has power -- the power to energize the hum-drum,
add levity to the everyday blah-blah-blah. Laughter carries such a social
connection that it's a mating ritual, a way to bond. Studies suggest that
laughter may boost our health.
Our all-too-human laughter sets us -- and our close cousins,
the primates -- apart from all other species that roam our planet, says Robert
R. Provine, PhD, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Maryland in
"Think about it the next time you walk through woods
listening to the odd cries and calls of the creatures that live there: When you
laugh, those creatures are hearing sounds that are just as odd and just as
characteristic of our own species," he writes in his book, Laughter: A
No Laughing Matter
Provine has spent a decade studying laughter. It's the best way
to understand human behavior, he tells WebMD. "Laughter is a mechanism
everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are
thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks
laughter in pretty much the same way."
Everyone has the capacity to laugh. Children born deaf and
blind are able to laugh. Babies laugh long before they acquire speech. Even
apes have a form of "pant-pant-pant" laughter.
Laughter is primitive, an unconscious vocalization, Provine
says. "In laughter we emit sounds and express emotions that come from deep
within our biologic being -- grunts and cackles from our animal
unconscious," he writes.
Do you seem to laugh more than others? It's likely genetic, he
Consider this story: One set of "giggle twins,"
separated at birth, was not reunited until 40 years later.
"Until they met each other, neither of these exceptionally
happy ladies had known anyone who laughed as much as she did," Provine
reports. "Yet, both were reared by adoptive parents they described as
undemonstrative and dour. These gleeful twins probably inherited some aspects
of their laugh sound and pattern, readiness to laugh, and perhaps even taste in
The Sex Connection
Because laughter is largely spontaneous and uncensored, it is a
powerful probe into social relationships, writes Provine. Laughter can make
people seem warm or authoritative, cooperative or ineffectual, or just plain
Tickling has long been the trigger that creates laughter,
something even the ancients knew, says Provine. Tickling itself is an
interesting phenomenon, he points out. When parents tickle an infant or a
child, it's to evoke laughter.
In fact, tickling is much the same behavior as the
rough-and-tumble play of apes. "Except when apes laugh, it's a
pant-pant-pant kind of sound rather than ha-ha-ha," he points out.