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Laughing can be deadly – neuroscientist and comedian

They say laughter is the best therapy, an instant vacation for mind and soul. We talked to neuroscientist, professor of cognitive psychology and stand-up comic Sophie Scott, who’s keen on having a good laugh herself and having others rolling on the floor.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Sophie Scott, welcome to the show. It's really great to have you with us. So let me start off by asking why is laughter important to psychology? I mean, laughter hasn't been studied for a long time. Why are scientists getting into it now?

Sophie Scott: I think there are probably two answers to that. I think one answer is that psychologists and neuroscientists have got a lot more interested in positive emotions in general. Most of the research in psychology into emotions has focused on negative emotions. And there's been a general recognition over the last 15 or so years that we need to pay more attention to positive emotions. And I think, secondly, laughter, when you start to pay attention to it, actually is a very interesting emotion in terms of how interestingly it's used by humans, but also how extremely widespread it is.

SS:OK. So we're going to actually try to deconstruct in detail, why laughter is so peculiar and interesting. Let's start with gestures. Gestures, like nodding or finger wagging, are different, have different meaning from region to region, but laughter and smiles - they're sort of universal, aren’t they?

SSc: Exactly. So as far as we can see, there is a subset of emotions with the express to the face and the voice which you can find anywhere in the world. Many things about emotions are very different from place to place, but these emotions - fear, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise and laughter - they are recognised everywhere and they seem to be used certainly in their core in very similar way. So cultures can still be very different in how they use laughter, but at their core you'll find it has this very important role in social interactions. And of course, we're not the only animals that laugh. So these same basic emotions, including laughter, are almost certainly emotions that we find versions of in other mammals.

SS:We'll talk about it a bit later. But before that, in a TED-talk, you have pointed out lack of laughter recognition among boys with psychopathic traits. Does that mean that people who never laugh are somewhat mentally disturbed more or less?

SSc: No, I think it's probably not that simple. So I think there is an interesting distinction to draw between learning to laugh and learning to laugh with other people, and the things that could affect you on that. So to all of us, all of us we were sort of being able to laugh when we were babies. It's a behavior that appears even in deaf and blind babies: even if you've never heard or seen laughter, you will laugh if you're tickled by your parents. And then we learn how to use that in a more complex way. And one of the things that we learn is to have to join in with laughter  contagiously. To laugh when somebody else laughs, even if you don't know why they're laughing. Now, that was what seemed to be disrupted in the boys who were at risk of psychopathy. So the boys with conduct disorders and the boys who have the high and callous and unemotional traits, they behave badly, and they don't care if they hurt you. And that, of course, we don't know what the cause is there. We don't know if they have had different experiences that mean they have never learned to laugh contagiously. We also don't know if there's something different about those boys that mean even if there were those opportunities, they did not laugh. They didn't learn how to do that. Something is stopping them from learning. So obviously, we need to know more about this.

SS:OK. And also, I know that you've used other people's laughter to illustrate a point in one of your lectures. And I mean, I couldn't help but notice how strange different people’s laughters can get from your regular “haha” to just really weird noises. I mean, hilariously weird. What do these differences depend on and why do I laugh in the way that I do?

SSc: I think the first answer to that - because it is actually quite complicated - I think the first answer is that it can just be to do with your physiology and your anatomy, because when you laugh in a really helpless way, if you laugh in a way that's absolutely uncontrolled, you are not really shaping the sounds you make. They're just kind of being produced by your body. And in a bit like a sneeze, you might end up making noises when you sneeze that you perhaps wouldn't want to make. The same can happen when you're laughing. And so just individual idiosyncrasies of how your articulators work might mean you have one kind of laugh or another. So I think that that's some of these - some, not all - of what's going on that means that laughter can be very strange and very variable across people. I think there's also quite good evidence or certainly a possibility that when you laugh communicatively, that's actually something that is more under your control - like the speech you’re using. Unlike the speech that you're using that can be influenced socially. So I think one of the other reasons that we can laugh differently is that we learn to use laughter in certain communicative settings. And actually that means it can be shaped like the rest of our communicative sense can be. So there's more possibility, I think, for, say, the cultural variation there.

SS:You mean sort of like practice laughter and use it as a tool - like “ha-ha-ha”?

SSc: Well, I think so. Yes, it always sounds really bad when you put it like that, but actually most of the laughter you encounter isn't people laughing absolutely helplessly - it's people laughing for social communicative purposes. But actually most of the time, the intent is good and the intent is just to show someone that you're seeking to have the appearance of someone who is, you know, using this joyful vocalisation. So I think one of the things that makes laughter quite complicated is that a lot of laughter is very communicative. And actually a lot of that laughter hasn't got really much to do with jokes and comedy. It's being used to show that you agree with someone, you understand someone, you're part of the same group with someone, you like someone. All this other kind of stuff that we're doing is having a conversation with people, we can kind of use laughter to sort of annotate. 

SS:Yes. So can you by a person's laughter tell what kind of person she or he is in terms of psychotype? For instance, I've been told many times that I have either hysterical laughter or a contagious laughter. I don't know that I'm hysterical in real life or maybe I am - and laughter really gives it away of me. 

SSc: I think probably that what people mean when they say that often is that you have a laugh that they like and they want to laugh along when they hear it. So some laughter is more contagious than others. And some people do laugh more easily than others. So I've worked quite a lot with a chap from the US who's quite famous in the US for having a very, very contagious laugh. He does this kind of [LAUGHS] laugh. And it's a really beautiful laugh. But also he laughs really easily. He's a very kind of easygoing gentleman and he has a sort of joyful laugh that seems to reflect that personality. So I think you probably can't read everybody's personality by how they laugh. But I think sometimes when you're doencounter laugh, it seems to come in a truly joyful way without... it doesn't look like someone's faking it or pushing it at all. That is probably someone who laughs easily without being forced to. Then maybe there is something kind of nice about what's going on there.

SS: So laughter in general is easier to catch from someone you trust or that you like. How come we still laugh with strangers? I mean, I've seen this video from Berlin Subway. A whole car just breaks out into uncontrollable laughter — session, basically — and it starts with just one girl cracking up over something on her phone. It's just phenomenal. But obviously nobody on that train knew each other, and they were just laughing nonstop, all of them.

SSc: I've got deep suspicions about these videos of people laughing on trains because why was someone filming in the first place? You know, I think that something is more staged than we'd like it to be. So I think... that being said, we do laugh quite a lot with strangers because what adults will do is use laughter even in very transient interactions with people to sort of smooth over lumps and bumps to make an interaction go more smoothly. And it's a very socially acceptable way of doing that. So I remember once being on a train, two men came and sat on either side of a woman who'd kind of got four seats all to herself. And what she said was, “I'm going to move because I don't like the smell of coffee. And you've got coffee” - which is just offensive, isn't it? I'm going to move because you guys have sat there next to me and you smell. And what she did was she used laughter really cleverly and probably even without thinking about it to go, “I'm sorry, this is me. I'm being an idiot, but I'm a bit funny around coffee. So I'm very sorry, but I'm gonna have to move. Sorry about that”. And she laughed a lot and the men laughed a lot. And what could have been just a very awkward interaction was immediately, you know, finefine. It was absolutely fine. And I don't think anybody would necessarily realise how much they'd all use laughter to make that go that smoothly. And they never met before and they'll never meet again. You know, so it can have this incredible transient appearance because we use it for the social community purposes and sometimes — I think not always, but sometimes — a lot of what we mean by social skills kind of can incorporate — doesn't have to but it can incorporate — using laughter that way to just smooth things over, to just make things go slightly more comfortably. 

SS:So does the fact that you are more likely to laugh with others explain all the really irritating canned laughter in sitcoms like even if it isn't funny, you'd hear the laughing sound and just uncontrollably join in?

SSc: I think that's almost certainly what's going on. We ran a study earlier this year where we just added laughter to the end of jokes, and the jokes were terrible. They were deliberately quite bad jokes, and they were read by a comedian who really went for it.

He’s saying “Oh, what’s orange and sounds like a carrot? A parrot!” And… And that’s the wrong way around – “what’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot!” Sorry, I told it really badly. And what we found is that you could rate  how funny those jokes were and people did not find it very funny. And then we just added laughter onto the end. And we got people to rate the jokes again, and different people, and they couldn't ignore the laughter. So if you added any laughter onto a joke it made that joke seem funnier. And the more spontaneous the laughter, the funnier it made the joke. So it's like you can't ignore laughter. It's kind of sticky and at least if someone somewhere thought it was funny — itinfluences what you think.

SS:So you're also saying that couples who laugh together tend to last longer and have a healthy relationship. I mean, I agree with that. The first thing I look in a partner is a sense of humor. Do you think it's because of the primal strength of laughter as a communication tool or just because people with a sense of humor like others with a sense of humor?

SSc: I think it's because the laugh is a sign of the strength of that relationship, because the really interesting thing about this in literature is wrote by Robert Levinson in the U.S. And what he does is he puts couples, married couples, in stressful situations. And you see physiologically people get stressed out by this. And what he finds is the couples who deal with it with laughter, exactly like you say, they get less stressed immediately, and they are happier in their relationship and they stay together for longer. But critically, it only works if they both laugh. And I think the very interesting thing there that  it's a sign that if your relationship is strong enough and intimate enough, that you can, if you want to, actually use laughter together to feel better together. That is telling you something about the relationship. And he first found that the opposite is true. So if one member of the couple doesn't join in with the other one laughs, that's a really bad sign. And it's not necessarily anything to do with humor. It's more that if they wanted to, they would join in. But they don't want to. And that's actually telling you something about where that relationship is going.

SS: Well, is there also any truth to the folk legend that laughter prolongs your life? Is it good for you biologically?

SSc: I don't know. I think what difficult thing about laughter is - it is really enjoyable and it is a treasured thing: when you're with someone who really makes you laugh, exactly like you say, it can be a delightful thing to be in that person's company, and it feels wonderful. And you do feel better when you’ve been laughing, you feel more relaxed, you feel less stressed and you get a nice kind of endorphin high from laughing. Now, does that translate into being healthier? We don't know. We do know that the opposite is true. So, again, going back to Robert Levinson's lab, to look at those couples who are having stressful interactions - the couples who deal with... all the people who deal with stress by kind of just ignoring it or by using aggression, they are more likely to have health problems. So the people who tend to get angry, for example, are more likely to have heart problems. So, you know, you can sort of say the opposite is true: not using laughter isn't particularly good for you. So we don't know if that's positive evidence for laughter or negative evidence for anger.

SS:So laughter can be impossible to control and incapacitating in a way. Why does that happen to us? I mean, do we just sort of let our evolutionary guard down when we laugh because it makes us feel safe and then allow laughter to get us literally rolling on the floor?

SSc: It's a very good question, and I don't know if I can give you a completely good answer to it. So I think one aspect of that is true: we won't laugh randomly. We do tend to laugh more when we feel safe, when we feel secure. So if you're building a place where you want people to laugh, like a comedy club, you tend to have a low ceiling and low lighting and you squash all the seats and together, so everyone's kind of squashed in together. And that makes audiences laugh more. They laugh less if they’re brightly lit. the They laugh less if there is a high ceiling. They laugh less, the more they are spread out. So feeling safe does seem to lead you to laugh more. And you do get this tremendous weakness associated with laughter. I don't know… There isn't enough science on this. So I'd really like to know more about this. We do know that as soon as you start laughing, you get this suppression of postural reflexes. So those sorts of things that keep you standing up or standing up will keep you in the chair of your sitting down. Those get suppressed very quickly when you start laughing. So you do get floppy. You try and do something with your hands when you're laughing. It's really hard. Now, we don't know why that happens. We don't know if that happens to other animals or it is just us. I think it's one of things that's quite nice about laughter is that slightly helpless feeling. As you say in evolutionary terms, it's very hard to understand how that could come about, because when you're really that weak and helpless, if a tiger came in, you might not be able to run away very quickly, for example. So it is quite interesting. It's an interesting, you know, kind of possibility that maybe the advantages of laughing like that outweigh the dangers.

SS:So what laughter physically is - is a series of lung contractions, right? That squeeze the air out of the lungs. It's lot of fun, yes, but it also sounds like kind of dangerous. I mean, after all, it is interfering with the breathing process, right? Why is laughter stronger than the life supporting activities of our body?Can you literally die of laughing?

SSc: You can. There was a very famous case when I was a little girl in the 1970s in Britain. There was a television program called “The Goodies”, and it was very popular and very funny. And the following morning, after a very funny episode I've been on - I remember, funny, very funny. There was a news headline in all the papers that a man watching “The Goodies” had laughed so much, he had dropped dead.

SS: Oh, God…

SSc: And actually laughing and dying laughing is not that uncommon because, exactly like you say, you put a lot of stress on your rib cage, and that's where your heart is and your lungs are. If your cardiovascularly compromised, you are at more risk when you laugh because you start to cause, for example, a much greater pressure increased inside the rib cage. And in fact, many years later, the granddaughter of this man who dropped dead watching that night “The Goodies” television programme in the seventies collapsed from the heart attack at the age of 28. But her heart just stopped beating altogether. And she was shown to have an inherited heart problem, and she was saved, and she got a pacemaker and she's OK. But it's almost certainly what her grandfather had. So he'd always had a weak heart. And he was laughing that hard that actually stressed his heart so much that he died. It just stopped beating. Now, rather beautifully, his widow wrote a really lovely letter saying that it was horrible that he died. But actually, you know, he died doing something that he truly loved. He was really enjoying himself and that her last memory of him was of him laughing. So, you know, I'm not saying we should all laugh until we  drop dead. But given we all have to die one day, maybe there are worse ways of going.

SS: Right. Better die laughing than crying - that's for sure.

SSc: Probably.

SS: Picture an old noir film: there is always like the scene where a female lead is super nervous and hysterical and then has a fit of laughter.  So there's always a man in a hat that has to slap her to bring her back to her senses. So sometimes laughter is also a sign of not a well-being, right? Just the opposite, isn't it? How does that work? The nervous laugh.

SSc: Well, I think there's two kinds of nervous laugh. I think quite often nervous laughter is people trying to use laughter to deal with a stressful situation and no one else joins in. And then it looks odd. If everyone else joined in, it would be fine. So it's someone laughing to go, “ha-ha-ha” - I'm sure this is okay. No one else joins in. So that's nervous laughter. That's quite common. I think there was a second kind of nervous laughter which is associated with most serious situations and which is more of a sort of shock response. So I've spoken to a couple of people who were in situations where terrible things had have happened, like car accidents, bad things that happened. And they had become absolutely hysterical with laughter. And there wasn't like a ha-ha-ha nervous laugh. It was screaming with laughter, unstoppable laughter and completely inappropriate, and they didn't want to do it. So I think for some people, it may be part of a really horrific… in the same way that you might burst into tears after shock - these people start laughing. And we don't know what the role is that, we don't know exactly what's happening. But it's definitely something that happens for some people. And it seems to be a qualitatively different thing.

SS: So you mentioned that we're not the only beings that laugh: there are other mammals like chimpanzees, rats - but they don't joke, right? They laugh when they play - like us. You also said that babies, that are blind and deaf, also laugh when they are tickled also. Is laughing at a good joke, laughing at humor are the same as laughing when we're tickled?

SSc: I suspect that for humans, there is something qualitatively different about humor. So wherever you find laughter in other mammals, it's associated with tickling, with play, with these quite physical interactions. There was a really lovely study that came out earlier this year, they took  rats to play hide and seek, and the rats would laugh when they were looking for the human. They would laugh when they found the human. They didn't laugh when they were hiding until they were found. And then they started laughing. It's quite, quite human like you. But still, in this context of play. And then as soon as you find humans appearing on the earth, you find the appearance of modern humans, you find them starting to make jokes. So wherever humans have left any kind of record, they leave examples of jokes and humor. And I suspect that it's just another thing that humans have brought to the party, as a way of getting to laughter. That doesn't require you to tickle each other or chase each other and then have a game. You can trigger the laughter by wordplay, and by descriptions, and by slapstick. So there is something different going on. They still might bring us back to laughter, but it might build on some of the other skills humans have.

SS: So. Well, how do people who are actually studying laughter understand, for instance, when rats laugh?

SSc: It's a good question with rats. So it's quite obvious with chimpanzees and other apes because it looks and sounds like laughter - we can hear it. We only know about the rats because the guy researching rats and looking at rat vocalisations noticed the rats made a very specific type sound and they were playing with each other, and rats are very social, and they play with each other a lot. So they wanted to know if that was laughter. So they got the same rats and they started tickling them. And then they noticed that the rats made the same sound when they were tickled. And if you tickle rats and then take your hand away, the rat will make the sounds, trying get you to tickle it again. So it does look like it's genuinely, it’s a positive  emotion for the rats, and it's something they'd like to carry on. And they are marking that with this joyful sound.

SS: Let's talk about the role of humor and laughter and how they're interrelated, because joking around actually doesn't even induce laughter that much. I mean, especiallywith you, the Brits,, right? And most of your jokes are dead-pan, absurdist commentary on the bleak reality around you. So do humor and laughter exist completely separately from each other?

SSc: I think they can be. So I can think of things that are very, very funny, but they don't make me laugh. I enjoy reading them. I enjoy watching them. But they're not laugh out loud. I can see that they're humorous. And I can think of other things that are humorous and make me laugh a huge amount. And of course, laughter doesn't have to have anything to do with jokes at all. It is primarily social behavior. But I think that might be what's in common. So I think one of the things that is quite interesting about jokes and humor is it still carries a lot of social information. So people will rate things as funnier if they think they are humorous items like jokes that were told by someone who is known to be funny, to be a comedian. And if they think it was told by someone who's famous but not a comedian. So it's like the originator of a comedy. If they are comedians, it makes it funnier, and people will find things funnier if they like the person who's telling them. You know, if you don't like a comedian, it's fairly unlikely that they will make you laugh. So you get this big kind of swathe of social stuff, a bit like finding that laughter influences how funny a joke seems. The way that the social information around a joke will still influence how funny that joke seems to be to us. So you can think of humor as being a very abstract thing, but actually it's still completely situated in a social context, just like laughter.

SS:So what has your standup comedy experience shown about laughter? When you go against a brick wall do you think, “Oh, OK, I'm going to test this and that theory on them, just watching how they will laugh”? Is that how it works?

SSc: I think the thing I realised about doing standup comedy that I did not realise until I did it was how complicated and how interesting the relationship is between the standup comedian and the audience. Because I used to think the standard comedian is just kind of standing up and doing that thing, and then the audience is reacting. But I'm coming to realise that actually it's much, much more nuanced than that. So the main thing that you have to learn to do to do standup comedy, and it sounds so obvious, but it's so hard to do is when you get to the point where you hit the punch line for a joke you have to pause, so that the audience can laugh. If you don't pause, they won't laugh. And if you let them laugh and then you start talking over the laughter, they'll stop really quickly because they want to hear what you're saying. So that's a huge thing. And also, audiences don't just laugh. If they like a joke in the U.K., they'll start clapping, and if they can kind of see where you're going, but they don't really approve what they think, it's a bit of a rubbish joke they'll go, “Oh”... You know, it's actually much more nuanced. In the U.S. you get a lot of cheering at comedy, which you don't really see in the U.K. So it is more like a weird conversation, I think, than I hadn’t realised until I started trying to do it. And the other thing thatis really interesting is how confident you seem. If you come out and you look like you are terrified, the audience will be very worried, and they probably won't laugh. And if you do things like you don't know how to use the microphone, they will get very uncomfortable and you probably will find it quite hard to get them back. So one of the main things that you get taught to do when you first do standup comedy is simply how to hold a microphone so that people... so that it always be near your mouth because that's one of the main things the audience will react to. If you look like you don't know what you're doing, they'll be worried and they'll stop laughing. So it sounds strange because you think it will be about being funny and it is about being funny. But actually the first step to being funny is being confident and looking like you're comfortable…

SS: And in control.

SSc: Exactly.

SS: Well, also, it's been a bliss talking to you. All the best and lots of laughter in the upcoming year. Thanks for talking to us. We've been talking to Sophie Scott, neuroscientist, professor of cognitive psychology and stand-up comic, discussing what laughter does to our bodies and lives.