According to other studies, apes are not the only animals to display laughter-like characteristics. Dr Jaak Panksepp specialises in studying animal emotions at Washington State University. Using high-frequency detector equipment, he recorded rats and discovered that they produce ultrasonic chirps, particularly when they appeared to be playfully interacting with each other. The more he studied the rats’behaviour, the more he began to ponder whether the chirping sounds had a purpose. Then he had an idea.
“One morning I came in and I said to one of the grad students: ‘Let’s go tickle some rats’,” he explains. “I picked up a rat and began to tickle it, moving my fingers rapidly all over the animal’s body.” As he did this, he recorded the sound the rat made. It was the same noise as the chirps he had recorded previously but was louder and more consistent with a familiar, dynamic rhythm. “I thought, ‘My God, what if that sound is laughter?’,” says Panksepp. He repeated the experiment with several rats and each time the noise he recorded was the same. And on several occasions, when the tickling stopped, the rat followed his hands, as if wanting more. Although the sounds the rats made showed all the characteristics of laughter, Panksepp is careful not to label it as such. “A lot of people don’t like that word. Giving human qualities to animals is a no-no, since we are closer to the angels than the other creatures of the world,” he says.
This reverential view of the humanness of laughter is mirrored in Aristotelian philosophy. The ancient Greek scholar believed that it is not speech, conscious thought, culture or opposable thumbs which separate us from the beasts; it’s laughter. He wrote that when a baby emits its first laugh, it is transformed from a human into a human being, describing the process as “human ensouling”.
From those first baby giggles, we begin to use laughter until it becomes a communicative Swiss Army knife which can be utilised to berate others or make them feel good. It can be used to make us popular and it can be used as an emotional release mechanism. While we are born with the physical ability to laugh, the capacity to utilise it as a social tool is something we learn. And in order to do this, we need to develop a sense of humour.
Stephanie Davies, the author of Laughology: The Science of Laughter and a behaviourist, is one of the country’s pre-eminent laughter experts. A former stand-up comedian, she studied the science of laughter and founded Laughology, a unique enterprise which teaches individuals in the public and private sector how to enhance their potential through laughter and humour.
She explains the distinction between the two: “Laughter is a response; it’s usually the outward manifestation of humour but doesn’t always have to be about something which is funny. It can be used to fit in to a social situation or it can be a way of coping with a situation.” Humour, she says, is simply a system for processing information – so it changes in us all the time, depending on factors such as age and situation. “Different factors impact on how people develop a sense of humour,” Davies says. “A child knows that laughter is positive and learns that actions which get a laugh are positive. He or she will repeat those actions or mimic them from other people and start to develop an awareness of humour based on the reactions of those around them.”
And while laughter has altered through evolution, humour has also evolved and continues to do so through cultural change. What was funny 30 years ago isn’t always funny today, because our understanding of the world changes over time. In the Seventies, the casual racism of television comedies such as Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was perceived as funny because casual racism itself was acceptable. People were allowed to laugh at it. Today, society has evolved to understand that racism is not funny, so we are less likely to laugh.
For such an integral facet of humanity, the academic study of laughter and humour is still a relatively new field. Increasingly, however, experts are beginning to investigate the personal and social benefits of laughter.