Laughter might not be the best medicine in all instances, but it's pretty good. Scientists have known its health benefits for years. And how about this? According to new research, laughter comes in different varieties -- and humans can detect differences regardless of language. Natalia Reagan investigates the funny business in today's DNews dispatch.
According to a behavioral study recently published in the journal PNAS, people can detect authentic laughter from contrived laughter, even across linguistic and cultural barriers. It seems that the polite laughter you might share with a stranger is appreciably different from the spontaneous laughter you generate with friends. The upshot: We know real laughter when we hear it.
The study included 966 listeners from 24 countries across five continents, including India, Namibia, Peru and Slovakia. The test subjects were provided with clips of pairs of English-speaking laughing together. Those recordings, in turn, were generated by randomly pairing people in the lab and encouraging them to share funny stories.
Some of the storytelling pairs knew each other. Some did not. The international listeners were able to determine which was which 61 percent of the time, which is statistically significant given the size of the study. The audio clips contained laughter only -- no speech or other indications that might suggest the nature of the relationship.
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The research builds on previous studies that suggest that we are much better listeners than we're consciously aware of, when it comes to laughter and social cues. The subjects in the listening portion of the study appeared to be unconsciously registering slight differences in spontaneity, duration, tone and acoustics. For instance, laughter between friends tends to be quicker and more spontaneous, with greater pitch and loudness variations.
Why is this important? Well, scientists believe that laughter is older than language and is a behavior shared by all humans, George Will being a notable exception. Laughter has long been known to be an affiliative behavior -- like touching or playing. It helps to form and strengthen bonds between individuals. It's not just about humor, either. Laughter plays an integral role in basic communication and linguistics.
The new study indicates that we humans are carefully attuned to the function of laughter as an affiliative behavior. The fact that listeners in the study could make cross-language determinations suggests that laughter is very old indeed; that we're making assessments in some pre-linguistic part of the brain.
Something to keep in mind next the boss tells a joke.
-- Glenn McDonald
TIME: You Asked: Does Laughing Have Real Health Benefits?
Research Digest: You Laugh Differently With Friends Than You Do With Strangers
Washington Post: You're Not Fooling Anyone With Your Pretend Laughter