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Scientists: Time to take laughter seriously

Laughter breaks the ice and paves the way for social bonding
(photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Ali Jones

Before they learn to talk and walk, babies can laugh. The first laugh out loud at about four months of age fascinates and excites even the most jaded parents, and from that moment it is a tool for communicating with the world for life.

Laughter is a social glue that binds people together, helping them overcome and smooth over all kinds of experiences and encounters. Yet science knows very little about how this happens.

Positive vibes

“Laughter is central to our attempts as humans to coordinate and interact with other people, and we don’t know much about it,” says Stephanie Höhl, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Vienna, Austria.

Høll works on the Laughing Together project, one of two EU-funded studies looking at happiness in a new way.

In psychology and neuroscience research, laughter has been overshadowed by the pressing need for medicine to examine negative emotions that affect mental health, such as anxiety and fear.

Moving forward is the clinical imperative to understand more about these emotions in order to be able to treat patients effectively.

“Positive emotions such as laughter are not as well studied because their societal and clinical impact is not as immediate,” says Dr. Carolina Pletti, a researcher at the University of Vienna. “Yet, if we want to increase people’s well-being, we must increase the positive and simultaneously decrease the negative.”

Laughter’s ability to break the ice and pave the way for social bonding is easy to understand. It releases endorphins in the body that give a warm feeling of satisfaction. Is there anyone who doesn’t feel better after an evening with friends spent laughing?

What exactly happens inside the brain is what Pletti and Höll want to understand better during the two-year project, which runs until March 2024.

Double laugh

The two experts pair up volunteers to monitor their brain activity when they both laugh at something at the same time, using some of the funniest animal antics to keep the fun going.

Brain activity is rhythmic. Speech and music are now known to help synchronize brain rhythms between people.

When two minds tune into the same wavelength, they process information faster. As a result, communication is smoother and interaction and collaboration are facilitated.

For the first time, researchers looked at the dynamics of two brains interacting in real time and under the influence of laughter — in both adults and children.

“We think that laughter can really have a beneficial role in getting people’s brains on the same page,” says Höll. “It’s a social signal and, research-wise, it’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”

A brain imaging technology device worn like a hat captures brain activity while participants watch funny videos, laugh at silly puns and communicate freely. It is this final phase that shows whether laughter can stimulate brain synchronization.

Surprise in the test

Early results from experiments with older participants hold a surprise.

Yes, laughing together does improve neurological synchrony, but the unexpected surprise is that it doesn’t last long. The researchers found a five-minute interval during which people’s brains were tuned into the same rhythm before the effect was lost.

The researchers will study the effects of personality and hope to expand the study to include experiments to understand what happens when people already know each other. Future research may also ask what can be done to extend this golden mean of synchronization.

Meanwhile, researchers are turning their attention to studying children by making them laugh with funny videos or animal cartoons and then assessing what happens in their brain activity when they cooperate in a game.

This separate study is one of very few that studies how preschool children interact with each other and the brain’s processes of cooperation and synchronization.

If they find that laughing together promotes positive behavior by helping children get along, the researchers say laughter could one day become an educational technique in schools — and one that could be applied to the workplace in the adult world.

Emotional spectrum

The Positive Emotions Project, or PEP, focuses on 17 of them, including gratitude, awe, joy, sympathy, and relief, which lack detailed and coordinated research.

The six-year initiative ends in August this year and is led by Dr. Disa Sauter, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The project involves collaboration with more than 60 researchers from around the world. It analyzes the thoughts and feelings of more than 30,000 people from around the world to compare different types of positive emotional experiences.

“The primary goal of the project is to study positive emotion in much more detail,” says Sauter. “It’s rightly called ‘happiness,’ but we’re taking a broader perspective to understand whether different types of positive emotions might work differently.”

Memory lanes

By examining facial expressions and the social norms whose environment determines how and when people display positive emotions, a major thrust of the project is vocal expression.

The researchers asked participants to talk about happy memories and compared their facial expressions and laughter.

In the long term, a deeper understanding of the way people look and sound when they are experiencing different emotions can help work with people who cannot communicate using words, including babies and young children.

These findings may also be useful for people who sometimes have difficulty communicating emotions, including people prone to autism and those with dementia.

This is a project to explore uncharted territories in human emotions across cultures. Over time, the results could become a valuable resource for developing technologies that aid in the transmission of human emotions.

It’s never boring

Souter and Platty, meanwhile, have no doubt about the contagious qualities and inherent benefits of laughter.

“People don’t need a lot of encouragement to laugh,” says Sauter.

Pletti supports this fact by citing another surprise in the project: scenarios designed to limit the likelihood of participants laughing turned out to be unsuccessful.

“Even when you give people a very boring task — like working on an instruction manual — they try to think of something funny to make the situation less awkward, and they’ll laugh anyway,” she says. “It’s almost impossible to ban it completely.”

This article was first published in Horizonthe EU research and innovation journal.

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