Humour and Laughter!!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Why Do We Laugh?

Why do we Laugh? This is one of the universal mysteries. Given the evidence is so strong that laughter is good for your health, then the next step is to find out why we laugh. In addition to this, most of the things we do have a purpose. So what is the purpose of laughter and why do we do it?

In laughing, the brain pressures us to do two simultaneous things. One is visual consisting of specific facial gestures. The second is a phonic one with the production of certain sound. During exuberant laughter, there is a change in many parts of the body even the arm, leg and trunk muscles.

There are three traditional theories that attempt to explain why we laugh and none of them are only about jokes. While they still contain elements of what we call humor, it highlights the distinction between a "joke" as such and myriad of "humorous situations that surround us". The three traditional theories are the superiority theory, the incongruity theory and the relief theory.

1. The superiority theory:

This is one of the oldest theories regarding the cause of laughter. It was first proposed by Plato. Many other forms of this theory have been suggested since then.

This theory suggests that we laugh because a particular person or character has a defect or is at a disadvantage. This occurs for example when a famous person such as Bill Gates gets a pie thrown in his face.
Another theory by Jose Antonio Jaurega focuses on humans as social creatures. According to Jaurega, we laugh every time we receive information through the sensory channels that breaks the normal code of behaviour. These can be social codes or natural codes. Nature has designed us as social creatures and provided an automatic response when the wrong thing is done so that we signal to the person as well as to others around that something is wrong here.

Laughter is a pleasurable experience and again, according to this theory, the process of laughter gives us a reward for providing this signal. Bad grammar or a pie in the face can also bring about this response. This reinforces a feeling of superiority - an "I'm better than you are" response.
While laughter itself is a universal language, the social gaffs that cause laughter differ from one society to another. So something that causes hilarity in one culture may not necessarily result in the same response in another culture. One problem with this type of response is that it also punishes the person who breaks the rule. While it may seem OK to signal that the rule is broken, we may feel sorry for the person who makes a genuine mistake who is then embarrassed.

2. The incongruity theory:

This suggests that humour arises when the seemly and logical disappear and things that do not normally go well together appear. The child who places a toy cat in the cat basket and heads off to the vet can bring about intense laughter. This occurs when certain situations do not go well together. It suggests that something doesn't belong here. Laughter, as a social signal warns others about this.

Thomas Veatch offers a more scientific explanation of this:

Veatch's Theory of Humor:
Thomas Veatch's Theory of Humor states that in order for something to be perceived as humorous, there are three elements that need to be present:

V There is a perception that something is wrong - there is a violation of what should be.
N There is a prevailing perception that the situation is, in fact, normal and okay.
Simultaneity Both N and V are present at the same time - "okay" and "not okay" are present in the perceiver's mind at the same time, resulting in an incongruity.

Tom Veatch defines humor by saying, “ humor occurs when it seems that things are normal while at the same time something seems wrong.”

3. Relief theory:

The earlier theories do not address why feelings of superiority or incongruity should call forth such an exuberant physical reaction. An advantage of the relief theory--proposed by Freud--is that it at least tries to explain the causal link between humour and laughter.

When a joke is told, its initial part is the building of a climax, during which a tension is built in the minds of the audience. The punch line, which is a sudden anti-climax, provides a sense of relief to the audience. This sudden release of tension manifests itself in the form of laughter.

According to Freud, there are powerful censors in the mind that form unconscious barriers to prevent us thinking about "forbidden thoughts". In this view, the laughable (ideally, a naughty joke) liberates the laugher from inhibitions about forbidden thoughts and feelings. The result is a discharge of nervous energy that distracts the inner censor from what is going on. Freud suggests that the release of this energy is a pleasurable experience as demonstrated by the good feeling that laughter provides.
Without a tool such as humor, our conscious mind would not allow us to talk or think about the "forbidden" subject dealt within the joke. Freud regarded humour as a means of outwitting our internal censor. We are allowed to indulge in forbidden thoughts if it is first disarmed in some way. An insult may seem funny if it is first of all posed as a compliment. In addition, laughter has the function of releasing nervous tension that results from thinking/talking about these "forbidden" subjects.

Freud also suggested that jokes as such are usually short things with double meanings. This is to fool the simple censors, who see only surface meanings and fail to penetrate the disguise of the forbidden wishes. Freud's theories seem to work best for humorous aggression and sex related jokes. The censorship theory explains why a joke is not so funny if you've heard it before. This is because a new censor has been constructed, or an old one extended. Novelty is therefore a key component in the telling of a joke that others consider "funny."

4. Laughter as social behaviour

A more recent theory comes from Robert Provine. Given the tendency for laughter to disappear in the laboratory, he enlisted the aid of a number of undergraduates to wander public places and take note of the behaviour of individuals involved in laughter. He found that most laughter was not in response to jokes or stories. Only some 10 to 20 per cent followed anything remotely recognisable as a punch line. A lot of laughter came in response to things such as "Gotta go now!" a comment which by itself does not seem to immediately bring forth a stream of laughter. Only 10% of lines that caused laughter could be seen as anything close to funny.
Laughter in this respect has a social function and may act as a bond between individuals in a group. This has been reinforced by studies of chimpanzees who exhibit a panting sound in situations to those similar to where laughter in humans is created. Apes laugh during tickle type games, as well as rough and tumble play.

While laughter can create bonding within a group, it can also be used in a way that laughs at a person rather than with the person. In this case, the function of laughter is to force some type of conformity to a social norm, or even to force an individual out of a group.

One other thing that creates laughter is laughter itself. Dubbed in laughter is often added to sitcoms. This is known as the contagiousness of laughter (which in its extreme form has caused epidemics of hysterical giggling among convent girls in Africa). MIT's Steven Pinker has suggested this shows that the primary Darwinian function of laughter is to serve as a social glue.

Another possibly more positive view of the causes of laughter may be seen in the following theory although it is a little light on what triggers laughter in the first place.
Laughter helps us to release emotion and tension. People often store emotions rather than express them if something angers, frightens, saddens, stresses or bores them. Laughter is another way for these emotions to find a way out harmlessly. That's why people who are under stress go to a funny movie or watch a comedian perform on stage, so they can laugh the negative emotions or tensions away. It's also why we have the saying "laughter is the best medicine." Babies and young children also laugh to express their happiness when they discover something new.

There are many more theories on why we laugh. As with many theories in Psychology, any one theory often gives us part of the explanation, rarely the whole picture. Given the positive effects of laughter, research in this area is likely to increase in the next few years, leading to even more theories in this area. One area that may change some of these theories may be related to more recent studies on the physiological responses that occur when we laugh.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Some Definitions.

The following are some definitions & thoughts on humour:

Humor is any intervention that stimulates a playful discovery, expression or appreciation of the absurdity or incongruity of life's situations.
- American association for therapeutic humor

Humor is the capacity to perceive, appreciate, or express what is funny, amusing, incongruous, ludicrous, etc.

Humor is the healthy way of feeling a "distance" between one's self and the problem, a way of standing off and looking at one's problem with perspective.
- Rollo May, Humanistic Psychologist

Humour is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.
- James Thurber

Humor is when an expected "future is replaced with an unexpected future. The more unexpected the more humorous.

For some humor is the "falling into place" (the "getting" it) and is not simply the unexpected surprise that is experienced as humorous.
- Anonymous

Humour is the only form of communication in which a stimulus on a high level of complexity produces a stereotyped predictable response on the psychological reflex level.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica

Laugh, & the world laughs with you

It is very difficult to imagine our life without the presence of laughter & humour. Many humorous incidents (or accidents) take place everyday; some evoking intense laughter, while others, just a smile. A humorous remark helps in easing stress and tensions. E.g. A teacher teaching a new class cracks a few jokes and makes the entire class comfortable.

It is very difficult to take humour seriously. However, its importance in daily life cannot be understated. It is an effective weapon for attacking social issues, and as stated earlier, for reducing stress. Due to this, of late, people have started taking humour seriously.

Our daily lives are highly stressed. Hence, saying that,‘ laughter makes our life worth living’, should not be called an exaggeration. Laughter acts as a safety valve to release tensions whenever things become unbearable. Laughter is not always an outcome of humour. It is also a social function. As Mark Twain puts it,” Laughter is the only effective weapon mankind has.”

“If you are to busy to laugh ,you are too busy.”, they say. Let's dedicate some time from our ‘busy’ lives to analyse this unique propensity of mankind. What do people in general think about humour and laughter? What significance does it have in their personal lives? The blog is an attempt to delineate their responses and find out the truth behind the dictum, ” Laughing is serious business.” Do post your comments on the above questions.