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Why Do We Laugh?

No Laughing Matter
By
WebMD Feature

Whether you snort, cackle, chortle, or have a wild, weird little giggle, you have a "laugh print," a personal signature that's too, too you.

Laughter is so basic to humans, we barely notice it -- unless it totally pleases or absolutely annoys us.

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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 Baltimore.

"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 Scientific Investigation.

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 explains.

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 humor."

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 obnoxious.

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.

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