Is laughter the best medicine?

Professor Sophie Scott FMedSci  is a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow at UCL and spoke at the Academy’s public event on the science of laughter. 

I am interested in the science of laughter, an interest that grew from my studies of human vocal expressions.

It’s fair to say that there is little research into laughter: a Pubmed search for “emotional expression fear” turns up over 1,000 published papers, while a search for “emotional expression laughter” turns up just 44.

I think there are several reasons for this. First, psychology as a discipline of western science has been almost morbidly fixated on negative emotions, for the very good reason that it has been trying to investigate “normal” psychological processes in a way that can shed light on people’s experience with mental health problems.

Second, I think laughter can appear to be a very trivial, ephemeral topic to study – a unknown colleague of mine once took a pile of consent forms relating to a laughter study out of a printer at work and wrote a note on them saying:

This pile of paper appears to be rubbish, based on the contents* and will be disposed of if not collected.

*is this science?

The consent forms were extremely typical, rather dull, procedural accounts of what happens when people take part in a study, so I can only assume that the word “laughter” provoked the red mist to descend, and the urge to write a note overwhelmed my colleague.

As the 21st century version of “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is “if someone writes you a snippy note, get a customised T shirt made” Jim Parkinson has developed a fashion range based on the clarion call IS THIS SCIENCE. I like to wear the pants when I am reviewing papers.

So laughter may sometimes be too positive for psychology, and sometimes too silly. As I have also found, it can also be extremely difficult. We have been looking at voluntary, deliberate laughter and contrasting this with involuntary helpless laughter, the kind of laughter that you just can’t help.

When three of us in my lab first had a go at this, we just punted each other into the UCL anechoic (echo-free) chamber and did whatever it took to make me laugh – for example, I laughed helplessly when I could see my friend and colleague Carolyn Mcgettigan listening to something that made her laugh. This went so well that we tried to repeat it with some men, only to find that we were utterly unable to make them laugh. One after another sat in awkward silence in the anechoic chamber.

We were learning the hard way that laughter is essentially a social behavior. People are 30 times more likely to laugh if they are with other people than if they are on their own, and they will laugh more if they know those people. For example, both men and women catch more laughs from people they know than from strangers.

When we tried to collect laughs from the three of us in the lab, we were able to exploit the fact that we were a group and we were also all good friends. When we dragged a group of men in, we failed to ensure that they all knew us and all knew each other, and they felt odd, exposed and uncomfortable. Which turns out to not make them want to laugh at all. Is this science?

We have learned from this – when we collect laughter now, we get groups of friends in and spend quite a lot of time watching funny video clips like these (eg) together before we start, much as TV comedians often use a warm-up act to get everyone laughing before they start recording. This seems to be because laughter is a behaviour that can be strongly primed – the more someone is laughing, the easier it is to make them laugh.

More recently, we have run into the ways that laughter is sensitive to context in studies of how audiences laugh. In conversational laughter, people co-ordinate their speech and their laughter very tightly – for example, people consistently laugh at the end of sentences, even if they are conversing in sign language (where they could, in theory, be laughing the whole time). How does this co-ordination work in comedy audiences? Is it like a weird one-way conversation where the comedian does all the talking (hecklers not withstanding)?

To do this, we turned a lab at Queen Mary’s University of London into a miniature comedy venue, and recruited audiences who came to see a show with Tiernan Douieb and Stuart Goldsmith, while we measured their movements, facial expressions, breathing and laughter. To do this, we needed them to wear special hats, breath belts round their middles, while we shone bright lights on their faces so we could film their facial expressions. Just like a normal comedy club, then.

The actual experiment designed to study laughter.

Just as when we tried to record the men laughing, our audience felt odd, exposed and uncomfortable, and it did affect their laughter. In real comedy clubs (where no one tries to collect your heart rate data or film your face) there is a pure measure of how acts are going – are they laughing?

And any comedian will tell you that many aspects of the room will affect how much an audience laughs: people laugh more if they are squashed in tight together, if the room is dark, if the ceiling is low. And they’ll laugh more if they are in rows than if they are sitting around tables, as the tables seem to shift their attention to their friends rather than to the person on stage.

So studying laughter – particularly “natural” laughter – starts to suffer from the same problems as those encountered by comedians. Generally, in psychology, we aren’t too worried whether our participants feel odd, exposed and uncomfortable, but studying laughter may force us to try and use more natural laughing situations. So if you’re at a comedy night and I sidle up to you with a breath belt and a consent form, please don’t worry. This is science.

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