Why do we laugh?

At this evening’s Socrates’ Cafe we discussed a question I raised: Why do we laugh? As a preface I started things off by asking whether humor is a biological/chemical response and if humor is a universal experience that crosses cultural boundaries. We all seemed to agree that there was a biological and chemical basis for laughter. Animals sometimes seem to have a sense of humor. There is a feeling of euphoria caused by laughter. Many studies have documented the power of facial expressions, smiles, etc. to make us feel better. But laughter is not a pure reflex. Sometimes we laugh without control, for example when we are being tickled, but other times we stifle our laughter, whether because of social context or some other factor.

Besides the biological part of laughter there is the socal and communicative part of laughter. One of the participants told a story about living in China and joining people at karaoke bars where the accepted cultural behavior was to embarrass oneself in front of friends and colleagues. When we watch sitcoms on television we laugh in response to the artificial laughter of the laugh track. In groups we may laugh at the frailities and foibles of another person. At work we may laugh cautiously at a superior’s weak humor. Everywhere we laugh there seems to be a new situation and a new social context or nuance to our response. As people fired off example after example I became more and more amazed at the remarkable ability of the human brain to make social calculations at a blindingly fast speed. All of these factors are instantly calibrated leading to a hearty chuckle or else a contained giggle.

Laughter combines the instinctive reflex and the cognitive judgment of humanity. It’s intriguing because it is controlled and uncontrolled at the same time, wrapped up in our individuality and our social natures at the same time. The topic and the experience is so universal and unique that describing what laughter is becomes impossible.

Some other interesting examples or questions to be raised: How does the way you tell a story or a joke affect it’s humor? We’ve all been in occasions where a story that seems incredibly funny to us falls flat for another. Are there any types of humor that are unacceptable? How far can jokes about races, religions, sex, or any controversial topic go before we say that enough is enough? Is there a societal sense of humor and does it change between generations or over time? Would a joke in Shakespeare’s time still have the same resonance it does today? Perhaps if the joke were explained to us it might, but the explanation robs it of some humor by destroying the possibility of surprise.

We laugh, in part, because of the absurdness of our lives. Physical comedy reminds us all of our human foibles and insufficiencies. Satire digs at our most cherished beliefs when direct confrontation may never succeed. There are layers upon layers to the problem of humor.

My favorite thing about such discussions is the sheer complexity they begin to limn. Whether laughter is biological or spiritual it makes life a little easier to bear. And, if there is a god, I think he or she has a wicked sense of humor. Someday a more in-depth exploration of this topic might yield an interesting book or essay.