The scientific study of laughter is called gelotology. In some part because laughter is no major clinical issue, there are only a few researchers out there who are dedicated to studying this topic (although there have been rare cases of uncontrollable laughter, and laughter induced by epilepsy). Laughter also just generally seems like an unusual topic to study. In this post I will give a quick brief on the LOLs that we love so much.
Although our minds can distinguish between fake and true laughter, scientific evidence suggests that our bodies cannot – i.e. we can experience the same effects physiologically in both situations.
One of the most peculiar things I have ever experienced is attending a Laughter Yoga session
Laughter Yoga is a group activity that is typically directed by a “Laughter Leader”, who takes the class through a series of different laughter exercises combined with Yogic Breathing in a 45 minute to one-hour lasting session.
Studies looking into regular laughter yoga sessions have found them to elevate self-esteem and work productivity as well as increasing pain tolerance, immune system defenses, and decreasing stress, anxiety and tension.
Have you ever laughed for a whole hour??
Being World Laughter Day on Sunday 5th May, I decided to take full advantage by going to my first Laughter Yoga Class in the lovely outdoors of Parliament Hill.
To start the session, our group was instructed to greet each person in the group with a handshake – as well as with most importantly, laughter. We then began an exercise in which we pretended we were holding small mirrors, and with a bit of acting, we started to look into our mirrors and laugh at our reflections. Then we had to walk up to other people and show them our mirror, so that they could laugh some more at their own reflection. Some time into the session, a small Chinese lady instigated the group to begin walking around like penguins. Apparently I have a good penguin walk…
“Let me tell you a secret” The leader whispered. She gathered everyone into the middle of the circle; we all huddled together.
“Today… is Sunday the 5th of May”.
Enough was said: Everybody instantly burst into fits of laughter. My phone started ringing, and as I took a phone call, the group started mimicking people walking around, talking gibberish on their imaginary mobile phones.
“At some moments it felt like everyone around me had gone temporarily insane.” – Me
There are now over 6,000 laughter clubs globally. The founder’s ideology is that embracing the spirit of laughter can lead people to achieve a more positive outlook on life (as well as improved lung capacity and abdominal tone).
Just experiencing this unusual setting was enough to make me laugh. Please see link below. Note: the man rolling on the floor in hysterics.
Laughter yoga also teaches people to laugh at themselves. For example, laughing off super awkward moments can help us to lose our inhibitions and gain self-confidence.
A domino effect
The power of laughter to evoke more laughter or good humour is illustrated in the use of canned laughter in TV sitcoms. Laughter tracks were first used in the 1950s, when several shows used them to compensate for a live audience. A study published in 1974 soon showed that people were more likely to laugh as well as rate comedic material as funnier if it was followed by canned laughter. Many people find this quite questionable, as laughter tracks are so common that they can be viewed as part of a sitcom’s background noise, and some will agree that they are generally rather annoying. Even so, the concept holds that hearing other people laughing can encourage others to laugh along and enjoy themselves more. Following on from this, it’s been found that laughter gas is not as effective when it is taken in solitude…
Ever heard the one about the tickle machine?
A group of researchers in San Diego wanted to determine whether being ticklish is a reflex, or more of an interpersonal behavior that only occurs in social contexts. To find out, they invented the “tickle machine” experiment. Participants were blindfolded and tickled twice—once by the experimenter, and once, they believed, by an automated machine. However, the subjects were unaware that the machine was actually a research assistant.
The “tickle machine” was as effective in producing laughter as the experimenter’s tickles. This case supports that the tickle response is a reflex. However, other scientists argue that because people can learn to inhibit their ticklishness, it cannot truly be involuntary.
If tickling causes us discomfort, why does it cause us to laugh?
One idea is that the strange combination of discomfort and laughter may help young children learn to protect themselves. “The discomfort motivates the child to escape, whereas the laughter encourages the other (the tickler) to continue, helping the child develop skills useful in defense and combat.”
Why are certain skin surfaces more ticklish than others?
Hypothesis one: The most ticklish skin regions are the most vulnerable spots in a fight. (Although, this raises an interesting question with regards to the soles of our feet.)
Hypothesis two: Increased skin sensitivity develops before birth to help the foetus maintain a favourable position in the womb.
Tickling has been posed as a way of strengthening relationships in parent-child bonding. However, we know that it also has potential to lead to adverse effects; excessive tickling, also known as “Tickle Torture” (lol) – can be intimidating and lead to bullying.
So, why can’t we tickle ourselves?
Surely if the same skin surfaces are stimulated in the same way, the information sent to your brain should be identical in both situations. One explanation is that for tickling to work, the brain needs both tension and surprise. When you tickle yourself, you know exactly what will happen: both tension and surprise are eliminated, so you don’t feel the tickle.
Take home messages
Keep on laughing. If you haven’t started already, why not start now?
If laughter yoga has taught me one thing, it is that you can fake it ’til you make it.
SMILE. Positive vibes lead to positive things.
Have a great week everybody!