Sophie Scott on Why We Laugh at TED Talk (Full Transcript)

Sophie Scott

Full text of cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott’s talk: Why We Laugh at TED Talk conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Sophie Scott on Why we laugh at TED Talk


Hi, I’m going to talk to you today about laughter, and I just want to start by thinking about the first time I can ever remember noticing laughter. This is when I was a little girl. I would’ve been about six. And I came across my parents doing something unusual, where they were laughing. They were laughing very, very hard. They were lying on the floor laughing. They were screaming with laughter. I did not know what they were laughing at, but I wanted in. I wanted to be part of that, and I kind of sat around at the edge going, “Hoo hoo!”

Now, incidentally, what they were laughing at was a song which people used to sing, which was based around signs in toilets on trains telling you what you could and could not do in toilets on trains. And the thing you have to remember about the English is, of course, we do have an immensely sophisticated sense of humor.

At the time, though, I didn’t understand anything of that. I just cared about the laughter, and actually, as a neuroscientist, I’ve come to care about it again. And it’s a really weird thing to do.

What I’m going to do now is just play some examples of real human beings laughing, and I want you think about the sound people make and how odd that can be, and in fact how primitive laughter is as a sound. It’s much more like an animal call than it’s like speech. So here we’ve got some laughter for you. The first one is pretty joyful.

[Audio: Laughing]

Now this next guy, I need him to breathe. There’s a point in there where I’m just, like, you’ve got to get some air in there, mate, because he just sounds like he’s breathing out.

[Audio: Laughing]

This hasn’t been edited; this is him.

[Audio: Laughing]

And finally we have — this is a human female laughing. And laughter can take us to some pretty odd places in terms of making noises.

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[Audio: Laughing]

She actually says, “Oh my God, what is that?” in French. We’re all kind of with her. I have no idea.

Now, to understand laughter, you have to look at a part of the body that psychologists and neuroscientists don’t normally spend much time looking at, which is the ribcage, and it doesn’t seem terribly exciting, but actually you’re all using your ribcage all the time. What you’re all doing at the moment with your ribcage, and don’t stop doing it, is breathing. So you use the intercostal muscles, the muscles between your ribs, to bring air in and out of your lungs just by expanding and contracting your ribcage, and if I was to put a strap around the outside of your chest called a breath belt, and just look at that movement, you see a rather gentle sinusoidal movement, so that’s breathing. You’re all doing it. Don’t stop.

As soon as you start talking, you start using your breathing completely differently. So what I’m doing now is you see something much more like this. In talking, you use very fine movements of the ribcage to squeeze the air out — and in fact, we’re the only animals that can do this. It’s why we can talk at all.

Now, both talking and breathing has a mortal enemy, and that enemy is laughter, because what happens when you laugh is those same muscles start to contract very regularly, and you get this very marked sort of zig-zagging, and that’s just squeezing the air out of you. It literally is that basic a way of making a sound. You could be stamping on somebody, it’s having the same effect. You’re just squeezing air out, and each of those contractions — Ha! — gives you a sound. And as the contractions run together, you can get these spasms, and that’s when you start getting these — wheezing — things happening. I’m brilliant at this.

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Now, in terms of the science of laughter, there isn’t very much, but it does turn out that pretty much everything we think we know about laughter is wrong. So it’s not at all unusual, for example, to hear people to say humans are the only animals that laugh. Nietzsche thought that humans are the only animals that laugh. In fact, you find laughter throughout the mammals. It’s been well-described and well-observed in primates, but you also see it in rats, and wherever you find it — humans, primates, rats — you find it associated with things like tickling. That’s the same for humans.

You find it associated with play, and all mammals play. And wherever you find it, it’s associated with interactions. So Robert Provine, who has done a lot of work on this, has pointed out that you are 30 times more likely to laugh if you are with somebody else than if you’re on your own, and where you find most laughter is in social interactions like conversation.

So if you ask human beings, “When do you laugh?” they’ll talk about comedy and they’ll talk about humor and they’ll talk about jokes. If you look at when they laugh, they’re laughing with their friends. And when we laugh with people, we’re hardly ever actually laughing at jokes. You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them. You might even love them. You’re doing all that at the same time as talking to them, and the laughter is doing a lot of that emotional work for you.

Something that Robert Provine has pointed out, as you can see here, and in fact, the reason why we were laughing when we heard those funny laughs at the start, and why I was laughing when I found my parents laughing, is that it’s an enormously behaviorally contagious effect. You can catch laughter from somebody else, and you are more likely to catch laughter off somebody else if you know them. So it’s still modulated by this social context. You have to put humor to one side and think about the social meaning of laughter because that’s where its origins lie.

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Now, something I’ve got very interested in is different kinds of laughter, and we have some neurobiological evidence about how human beings vocalize that suggests there might be two kinds of laughs that we have. So it seems possible that the neurobiology for helpless, involuntary laughter, like my parents lying on the floor screaming about a silly song, might have a different basis to it than some of that more polite social laughter that you encounter, which isn’t horrible laughter, but it’s behavior somebody is doing as part of their communicative act to you, part of their interaction with you; they are choosing to do this.

In our evolution, we have developed two different ways of vocalizing. Involuntary vocalizations are part of an older system than the more voluntary vocalizations like the speech I’m doing now. So we might imagine that laughter might actually have two different roots.

So I’ve been looking at this in more detail. To do this, we’ve had to make recordings of people laughing, and we’ve just had to do whatever it takes to make people laugh, and we got those same people to produce more posed, social laughter. So imagine your friend told a joke, and you’re laughing because you like your friend, but not really because the joke’s all that. So I’m going to play you a couple of those. I want you to tell me if you think this laughter is real laughter, or if you think it’s posed. So is this involuntary laughter or more voluntary laughter?

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