Why do sitcoms have a laugh track?
Why do we seldom laugh when we’re completely alone but laugh until we cry when we’re amongst friends?
Why do comedy snobs not laugh at Jeff Dunham when they see him on television but do when they see him live?
Why does my buddy keep a straight face when I deliver my latest joke, but that same joke kills later that night at our dinner party?
The answers to all those questions are simple. Well, it’s not that simple. It does involve science-y stuff, but it’s easier to understand than Game of Thrones.
In 1883, poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox published her most popular work, Solitude. The opening line of her poem is “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”
Apparently, Wilcox was right. She was merely making a keen observation but it’s a keen observation that science has since supported.
Sophie Scott, a famous neuroscientist from the University College London, tells us that “it’s absolutely true that ‘laugh and the whole world laughs with you.’ We’ve known for some time that when we are talking to someone, we often mirror their behavior, copying the words they use and mimicking their gestures. Now we’ve shown that the same appears to apply to laughter, too—at least at the level of the brain.”
They know, at least on an instinctual level, that the more people they tell jokes to the more laughs they’re going to get (and the more money they’ll make).
Science has, in the last decade or so, begun to explain why laughter is contagious.
Scott and her fellow scientists, played sounds to volunteers. They measure the volunteers’ responses to these sounds in their brains with fMRI scanners.
What sounds did Scott and her fellow scientists play to their volunteers? They played nice sounds like people laughing and not-so-nice sounds like people retching.
Both type of sounds, the nice ones and the not-so-nice ones, elicited responses in the premotor cortical region of the brain.
We all know what the premotor cortical region does, but just to refresh your memory from neurology class, it’s the region of the noggin that prepares your face muscles to move in a way that corresponds to a particular sound.
For example, when Amy Schumer says something gross about a female body part the premotor cortical region prepares your face muscles to cringe.
One of the things Scott and her fellow scientists found is the premotor cortical region response was higher for the nice sounds then it was for the not-so-nice sounds. This suggests that positive patter is more contagious than negative noises.
Not only did Scott and company monitor the premotor cortical region, they also looked at their subjects’ facial expressions.
What they found was interesting. They found that when their subjects heard laughter they tended to smile, but when they heard retching they didn’t frown or make a facial expression that you’d associate with retching.
What does this tell us?
It tells us that people want to avoid negative sounds and emotions. This may not sound Earth-shattering but it is backed by science.
So, when you’re in the crowd at a Kathy Griffin or Bill Maher show, you’re likely to laugh because Kathy and Bill are hilarious, and because everyone else is laughing too.
It’s almost like your brain is mimicking the laughter of the crowd so you’ll fit in socially.
“This response in the brain, automatically priming us to smile or laugh, provides a way of mirroring the behavior of others, something which helps us interact socially. It could play an important role in building strong bonds between individuals in a group,” explains Scott.
It’s a little strange to know that laughing at Brian Regan means you’re bonding with Brian Regan fans.
Some scientists believe our ancestors may have laughed in groups before they actually spoke in groups. In other words, laughter may be a precursor to language.
It’s interesting that humans observed that laughter is contagious long before science confirmed it. Even before we knew about the premotor cortical region of the brain, we knew Brian Regan needed a packed audience.