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Inside the Science of Laughter

April 1, 2010

This April Fools’ Day, regardless of whether you’re the one playing the prank or the victim of someone else’s shenanigans, odds are you’ll be laughing–and to Baltimore based neuroscientist Robert Provine, that’s serious business.

Provine, author of the book “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation” and the subject of a March 31 article by Associated Press (AP) science writer Seth Borenstein, believes that only 10-percent to 15-percent of a person’s laughter comes as the result of jokes or riddles. Rather, he says, “Laughter above all else is a social thing”¦ The requirement for laughter is another person.”

The University of Maryland Baltimore County professor has spent years scientifically dissecting humor and its response. He says that each laugh lasts approximately 1/15th of a second, and is repeated every 1/5th of a second. Additionally, it is not reliant on any single sense, as people can and often do laugh without seeing or hearing a specific trigger.

Also, Provine says, laughter knows know linguistic boundaries. “All language groups laugh `ha-ha-ha’ basically the same way,” he told Borenstein. “Whether you speak Mandarin, French or English, everyone will understand laughter”¦ There’s a pattern generator in our brain that produces this sound.”

Like Provine, Bowling Green State University (BGSU) psychology professor Jaak Panksepp has studied the science of laughter–in particular, laughter amongst animals such as chimpanzees and rats. Panksepp has documented his research, in which he tickles rats and receives a laugh in response, on YouTube and in various scientific journals.

According to Borenstein, the BGSU professor and others like him hope to “figure out what’s going on in the brain during laughter. And it holds promise for human ills”¦ Northwestern University biomedical engineering professor Jeffrey Burgdorf has found that laughter in rats produces an insulin-like growth factor chemical that acts as an antidepressant and anxiety-reducer. He thinks the same thing probably happens in humans, too. This would give doctors a new chemical target in the brain in their effort to develop drugs that fight depression and anxiety in people.”

Perhaps what they say is true–maybe laughter really is the best medicine.

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