© 2008 All Rights Reserved. Do not distribute or repurpose this work without written permission from the copyright holder(s).
Printed from https://www.damninteresting.com/humoring-the-gelotologists/
Within a nondescript university laboratory, a neurobiologist reads aloud from her list of prepared phrases. In the adjoining room, a volunteer listens attentively with a collection of colorful wires trailing from his head. The needles on the electroencephalograph (EEG) flutter with each utterance, but most of the phrases prompt little discernible reaction from the testee. Among the long list of experimental sentences, however, a few provoke a peculiar response. The volunteer’s face muscles contract, and his body begins to convulse. His breathing becomes spasmodic, and he makes a series of involuntary, repeated vocalizations. For one informative moment, the EEG’s mechanical scribblings flap rapidly from margin to margin, providing a nugget of neurological gold.
The affliction under study is surprisingly common among humans. Though the episodes are usually transitory, they will occasionally erupt as intense, prolonged outbursts where bodily fluid containment is placed in jeopardy as the hapless victim collapses into a moist, quivering, rhythmically-vocalizing mass. Alarmingly, the phenomenon is highly contagious, and in extreme cases, it can even lead to death. Taken together, these remarkable bizarre symptoms are known as laughter, and although it is universal among human races and cultures, its processes and purpose are not yet fully understood.
The formal study of laughter is conducted by specialists known as gelotologists, and thanks to their EEGs, fMRI scans, stethoscopes, and sphygmomanometers, the physiology of laughter— awkward laboratory laughter, at least— is well documented. First, the muscles of the face contract, baring the individual’s upper teeth as they involuntarily evacuate the contents of their lungs. The diaphragm and abdominal muscles begin staccato spasms, while the larynx— which is squeezed halfway shut by the epiglottis— turns each spasm-segmented breath-burst into a short “ha!” vocalization. During particularly boisterous episodes, the tear ducts and sweat glands activate, and the body may experience a profound loss of muscle strength known as gelotolepsy. Additionally, the irregular breathing may produce gasps or snorts to punctuate the absurd spectacle. These involuntary aerobics can leave the individual winded and achy, but nonetheless the experience is usually perceived as pleasant due to the opiate-like endorphins which simultaneously saturate the brain.
One peculiarity of laughter is that the mere sound of it can often trigger similar gelotoleptic fits in others. Moreover, a person is 30 times more likely to laugh if there are other people present. These insights strongly suggest that the physical expression of laughter serves as a social signal among humans. But contrary to popular belief, laughter is not a uniquely human trait. When dogs and primates share positive social contact such as wrestling, play chasing, or touching, they often emit laughter-like vocalizations; and ultrasonic laughter has been recorded during groundbreaking rat-tickling experiments. In each case, the sound of laughter seems to reduce stress levels and promote bonding among the animals. In light of the evidence, gelotologists generally agree that laughter is a primitive form of reflexive communication, harking back to early mammalian evolution. But in regards to what information is exchanged during these involuntary conversations, researchers are still uncertain.
Given the participation of the brain’s reward centers, it is likely that laughter provided humanity’s precursors with some evolutionary advantage. Typically when the brain wishes to impose significance upon something, it rewards the activity with a portion of endorphins, thereby enticing the individual to repeat the action as often as possible. The bliss found in eating fatty foods, for instance, probably provided early humans with the ambition to hunt and devour energy-rich animal flesh. Sexual intercourse also rewards the participants with a cocktail of natural feel-good biochemicals, perhaps as a means to encourage the development of the pornography industry, which is vital to a strong economy. Laughter, however, has no obvious survival-stimulating analog.
One prevailing theory states that humor is a learning mechanism which detects and corrects incongruence between expectations and reality. The brain is a powerful pattern-matching engine, and as it drinks in the world through its sensory organs, the mind maintains a model of reality by storing the patterns it observes and sorting them in order of importance. From one moment to the next, the river of incoming information is scanned for similarities to prior patterns, and extra attention is given to anything which strongly matches an important stored pattern— such as a familiar face— and to patterns that are atypical in the present context— such as a familiar face in bed with one’s spouse. In this way, the mind filters out the “background noise” of the world, and is able to focus more attention on survival and reproduction. These pattern databases are also useful for anticipating the future based on past experiences.
Essentially, the incongruence theory of humor suggests that an event registers as “funny” when it starts out by conforming to established patterns, but then defies the person’s model of reality by taking an unanticipated but logically valid detour. In a similar way, humor can occur when a nonsensical sequence suddenly reveals an underlying coherence, a method frequently used in joke punchlines.
According to this theory, the endorphin payoff encourages brains to seek out and store alternate logical patterns, such as those revealed in jokes, puns, syllable-transposing spoonerisms (“bowel feast” instead of “foul beast”), and Freudian sluts. Each of these self-corrections improves the mind’s ability to predict the immediate future, and laughing aloud encourages other members of the social group to take note of the unexpected congruence. Once the new pattern is incorporated into the psyche, subsequent exposures to similar patterns will not be surprising, which explains why jokes are only funny the first time around. The importance of timing in humor can also be deduced in this model, since the mind needs a moment to process the setup, but should not be given sufficient time to resolve the incongruence on its own.
Another aspect of the incongruence theory is that humor is a demonstration of one’s intelligence and problem-solving proficiency, and therefore it plays a role in social order. Individuals compete by actively seeking out humorous things and distributing them among their tribes. When an incongruence is highlighted by a individual’s error rather than a deliberate joke, the laughter can be belittling to the person who made the mistake, resulting in a loss of status.
John Morreall, the founder of the hardly-ever-dull International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS), offers a competing-but-possibly-partially-compatible theory which posits that the biological origin of laughter is a shared expression of relief at the passing of danger. In his model, endorphins serve to inhibit the biological fight-or-flight response, as well as promoting bonding among a group which works together to solve a problem or escape a stressful situation. The vocalizations send a message that the risk of danger has passed. According to this stress-centric theory, a joke is funny when the setup creates a psychological crisis of interpretation, and the punchline reveals that there is no real threat.
Laughter’s relationship with stress was accidentally illustrated by Dr. Stanley Milgram’s infamous obedience experiments of 1961. In these tests, volunteers dubbed “teachers” were instructed to administer electric shocks to a “learner” in a neighboring room. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the learner was an actor, and the shock controls were merely a convincing fabrication. At the experimenter’s insistence, the teachers toggled the shock controls each time the “learner” answered a question incorrectly, progressively intensifying the shock power as the learner howled about chest pains and heart trouble. A few “teacher” volunteers refused to continue after delivering a few mock shocks, but most were curiously complicit in spite of their discernible distress. Fourteen flustered volunteers exhibited hysterical laughter during the experiment, as described by Milgram in his report:
“The laughter seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre. Full-blown, uncontrollable seizures were observed for 3 subjects. On one occasion we observed a seizure so violently convulsive that it was necessary to call a halt to the experiment. The subject, a 46-year-old encyclopedia salesman, was seriously embarrassed by his untoward and uncontrollable behavior. In the post-experimental interviews subjects took pains to point out that they were not sadistic types, and that the laughter did not mean they enjoyed shocking the victim.”
Stress may have also played a role in one of the most anomalous and dramatic episodes of laughter in recorded history. In 1962, in the small village of Kashasha, Tanganyika (modern Tanzania), a group of students at a boarding school began to snicker following some remark or event which is now lost to history. Reportedly, the laughter was abnormally infectious, and soon the greater part of the student body was incapacitated with the contagious convulsions. In an effort to quell the inexplicable outbreak, administrators closed the school and sent the giggling students home, but this allowed the epidemic to spread. It is rumored that parents, siblings, and neighbors were subsequently reduced to wriggling, vocalizing masses, and the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic rapidly propagated to thousands of people including other schools, workplaces, and a neighboring village. The sporadic, uncontrollable episodes quickly became unpleasant for the sufferers, leading to abdominal pain, fainting, respiratory problems, rashes, and uncontrollable weeping; but it continued nonetheless. Reports vary regarding the duration of the epidemic—spanning anywhere from six to eighteen months—but over time it naturally faded. The underlying cause of the outbreak is still uncertain, but most historians and scientists attribute the bizarre incident to mass hysteria. The nation had won its independence from Great Britain only months prior, and the resulting increase in responsibilities among the citizenry was said to have produced unusually high levels of stress.
Though both the incongruence and the stress-relief theories of laughter offer interesting insights, neither offers a completely satisfactory explanation. Dr. Robert R. Provine, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County (UMBC), spent a decade conducting “urban safari” eavesdropping experiments to observe laughter in the wild. He and his team discreetly monitored over 2,000 instances of naturally-occurring laughter in public places, and found that it was very rarely connected to humor. People often laughed about mundane remarks such as “Hey John, where ya been?”, “How did you do on the test?”, and “That guy in the white lab coat has been staring at us for a while.” The study showed that such conversational laughter seldom interrupts sentence structure, instead punctuating speech when one would normally pause or breathe. Speakers were also seen laughing more often than their audiences— about 46% more often when the speaker was male, and 126% more with females. The human brain, it seems, capitalizes on the bonding element of laughter to reflexively lubricate everyday communication. Just as clearing one’s throat can be used to communicate any number of messages— a phlegm-obstructed airway, a respiratory infection, or a restroom with socially awkward acoustics— it is possible that noisy convulsions can satisfy several distinct communication roles.
Although laughter tends to disappear upon earnest observation, behavioral researchers have managed to catalog some of the mechanisms which drive it. For instance, it has been noted that children who are born blind and deaf retain the ability to laugh, therefore one can reasonably deduce that the behavior is inherent rather than learned. Scans of healthy, laughing brains have shown activity in the primitive limbic system— a network of structures which deal with survival and emotions. The frontal lobes are also involved, as evidenced by the fact that individuals who suffer damage to their right-frontal lobe often lose their ability to appreciate traditional humor, though they still find humor in slapstick and socially inappropriate jokes. In 1998 Dr. Itzhak Fried at the University of California at Los Angeles discovered that some laughter circuits route through the left frontal lobe as well. He was conducting some electrical stimulation of a teenage girl’s brain in an effort to find the source of her epileptic seizures. As he probed, the young woman abruptly began to smile and giggle. Flummoxed, the researcher asked what she found so humorous. “You guys are just so funny— standing around,” she explained. Moments later she laughed again, this time attributing the amusement to an inconspicuous photograph hanging on the wall. It soon became clear that any prodding of a particular patch of her left frontal lobe resulted in laughter; and each time she assigned blame to whatever happened to be in her field of vision. In the interest of science, Dr. Fried increased the current slightly, and noted a marked increase in guffaw intensity. Another notch, and his patient gushed unrestrained waves of exuberant laughter.
Further insights into the biological process of laughter have been found by studying laughter anomalies. Abnormal laughter has been known to occur in individuals with pseudobulbar palsy, gelastic epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig’s Disease, suggesting that the brain areas affected by these conditions play a role in laughter production. Additionally, certain types of brain lesions and humor tumors can cause emotional incontinence, which often includes uncontrollable, inappropriate pathological laughter. Cannibals who feast upon fellow humans’ brains are also vulnerable to the fatal Kuru disease, one of the symptoms of which is spontaneous laughter.
Another unaccounted-for element of laughter is its mysterious appearance during deep tickling. A mere touch in a ticklish area can create profound discomfort and severely incapacitate the ticklee, yet the contact often provokes animated laughter. A myriad of imaginative hypotheses have been suggested to explain this biological puzzle, including theories regarding child-parent bonding, sibling dominance, and learning to defend vulnerable areas. Compounding the conundrum is the fact that it is impossible to tickle oneself. In 1998, scientists at the Institute of Neurology in London constructed a tickle-o-matic robot to explore this facet of tickling, and found that a person controlling the robot arm could not tickle themselves unless a delay of at least 1/5 second was introduced. Attempts at tickling the robot elicited no response even at significantly higher delay settings. fMRI scans of the subject’s brains found that tickling is perceived in the somatosensory cortex, and that the cerebellum is responsible for the killjoy signals which disrupt self-tickling efforts. Research continues.
Before embarking on a high-speed laughter ride, one should be in good health and free from heart, back or neck problems, motion sickness, or other conditions that could be aggravated by extreme merriment. Expectant mothers should consult a physician. Laughter is a frequent trigger of asthma attacks, and in some individuals it can cause syncope, or loss of consciousness. Additionally, on at least three verifiable occasions, laughter has triggered a state of sharply reduced animation known as death:
- England, 1975: Fifty-year-old bricklayer Alex Mitchell died while watching the television show The Goodies. The episode depicted a kilt-clad Scotsman using his bagpipe to deflect a vicious black pudding intent upon attacking him. After twenty-five minutes of uproarious laughter, he died of heart failure as his wife watched helplessly. She later penned a letter to The Goodies, thanking them for making her husband’s final moments so pleasant.
- Denmark, 1989: Hearing-aid maker Ole Bentzen died while watching A Fish Called Wanda. During a scene featuring John Cleese, Bentzen began laughing so hard that he was seized by a heart attack and died.
- Thailand, 2003: Fifty-two-year-old ice cream salesman Damnoen Saen-um awoke his wife when he began laughing boisterously in his sleep. She was unable to wake him, and he died after two minutes of continuous laughter, presumably of heart failure or asphyxiation.
Aside from these risks, laughter’s heath effects on the human body are largely positive. It has been implicated in improving the health of the heart, immune system, and muscles, and it increases tolerance for pain. Ongoing studies also suggest that frequent laughter reduces the likelihood of strokes, and reduces blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Additionally, the accelerated breathing rate which accompanies laughter expels increased amounts of carbon dioxide, which is beneficial for plant life.
Whatever its physiological mechanism may be, one of the fascinating facets of laughter is humanity’s eagerness to incite it. People happily pay significant sums of money to have other people utter incongruent things at them, all in the hopes that it will trigger the spasmodic-breathing, epiglottis-squeezing, involuntary vocalizations of pure primitive pleasure. But curiously, many of these selfsame endorphin junkies frown upon other professions which strive for the same chemical-reward ends. Humans are indeed a strange and inconsistent species.
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“According to this theory, the endorphin payoff encourages brains to seek out and store alternate logical patterns, such as those revealed in jokes, puns, syllable-juxtaposing spoonerisms (“bowel feast” instead of “foul beast”), and Freudian sluts.”
Was the Freudian slip on purpose?
I guess if I have to go to the great beyond, I would rather go laughing….
I like Freudian sluts better.
Another great article. However this time I had to wait for quite a long time.
… cocktail party conversation … “So, what do you for a living?”
This is one well written and funny article. “Freudian sluts” indeed.
Interesting article. The first paragraph had me completely lost in anticipation. Thanks, D.I.!
Sure that little bit wasn’t inserted as a surreptitious experiment of your own, Alan? I almost had my own “bodily fluid containment placed in jeopardy” on reading that.
Haha, that was a great article! Freudian sluts all ’round.
Are we still talking about laughing here? Greatly written article. However, the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic sounds like the Joker was in town. Were there any fish with smiley faces found at the scene? Dark Knight should capitalize on this mostly true piece of history.
Based on personal experience, I think laughter, in consideration of the other theories, may be a defense mechanism for our body’s other worldly responses. The one that I find most notable would be pain. While it is certainly not enjoyable, most of the time, in my observance of others and from many instances of personal experience I find that high levels of pain often induce a wide spectrum of laughter.
The most notable personal experience of mine occurred the summer before I was to start ninth grade. Like many other teenagers, I had a knack for climbing. So, my friend and I were off doing what we do best within an old abandoned culdesac . Unfortunately, I decided to take a challenge of jumping from tree to another right over the edge of the asphalt. Well, to make a long story short, I ended up falling into the crotch of the tree. Luck had it though that I made it seconds later, but my left foot didn’t feel like coming with me. Despite having a hair-line fracture in my ankle and having fallen seven feet to the asphalt, which did hurt immensely for a few seconds, I found myself laughing hysterically. I just couldn’t stop, and of course the pain had been all but snuffed out. There was a numbness in my leg, but that is all I could feel as I continued to laugh in such an uncontrollable manner.
This experience, and what I have observed in my friends from time to time, has lead me to think that laughter may be one of the sensory overload defense mechanism our body harbors; or it can at least act one, in any case. The most common device that seems to trigger this is abrupt or intense physical contact; which may tie this in to the effects of tickling. Your brain cannot stop signals being sent from your nervous system, or at least from what I know of. So, if you experience physical input that is abrupt, unexpected, or extremely intense, your body has little power to stop that input to maintain control. Laughter, I think could a defense that combats this loss of control. While it doesn’t maintain complete control, it seems to keep your body responsive enough to make actions or at least move one way or the other to get out of a certain situation.
Really great article! Just thinking about laughter make me chuckle a few times.
I don’t get it. What’s so funny?
I’m surprised no mention was made of the groundbreaking research done by the British military during WWII, when a joke was discovered that was so funny it proved to be 100% fatal. It was used with great effectiveness against the Germans. The author, unfortunately, succumbed to its effect, as did many who discovered the joke in the subsequent investigation. Saw something on the BBC about it, probably from the late 60s/early 70s.
…I once knew a man with a wooden leg named, Smith. Oh really, what did he call his other leg?
Rat tickling experiments? An obvious waste of tax dollars hard at work for the good of…rat-kind! What will they think of next? I’m sure someone, somewhere, would like to study the effects of French ticklers? Then again, why would anyone want to tickle a French-person. HA.
“The bliss found in eating fatty foods, for instance, probably provided early humans with the ambition to hunt and devour energy-rich animal flesh. Sexual intercourse also rewards the participants with a cocktail of natural feel-good biochemicals, perhaps as a means to encourage the development of the pornography industry, which is vital to a strong economy. ”
Perhaps nirvana could be found if someone opened a live-sex comedy club where all menu items came with bacon and butter sauce. And, of course, pie a-la-mode.
Alan, you’re the greatest. ha ha! *wipes tears from eyes*
That would be an sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Tje joke was so powerful that one man could only known one word of the joke…
I guess I won’t suggest a DI article on the Ministry of Silly Walks, then. There is a company that will jolt your cat out of a state of malaise by confusing it, though, right?
22! the best i’ve been so far! great article i’m sure :) i’ll read it after a few minutes of glowing
I think I remember it from “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again”, which was a 1960s BBC
radio comedy show, with John Cleese, and other Brit comedy notables.
I was kinda wondering how one can tell if and/or where a rat is ticklish. I mean how do they know it was feeling tickled and not tortured. Ultrasonic vocalizations somehow don’t seem sufficient to be sure.
Strange… two statements in this article do not apply to me.
1. I still laugh at jokes after many repeated tellings.
2. I can tickle myself.
Maybe these are related? Am I a freak of nature?
Oh yeah! DI!
Donner, party of 50.
And it’s funny every single time!
I can tickle my own feet so I don’t think you’re odd at all.
Now, that’s MY sense of humor! (No, my wife doesn’t understand me.)
I must be a freak also. There are Larsen “Far Side” cartoons that have made me laugh multiple times without seeing them since the first time. The one that comes to mind is “Superman in his later years.” The Man of Steel is standing poised for flight on the window sill of the high-rise apartment. His outfit is a little baggy due to the loss of muscle tone. He has turned back and is asking Lois Lane, complete with reading glasses on a chain and sagging breasts, “Where was I going again?”
Works every time…
Our local animal shelter has found a way to calm the kennels when the canine inmates get riled up. They simply play a tape of dogs laughing–that is a tape of happy dog vocalizing. All the other dogs calm down.
I’m still laughing. Time to check out today’s Calvin and Hobbes.
Kashasha, Tanganyika laughing epidemic! That’s really, really weird.
It must have been so bizare to be caught up in that mass histeria. There is a part in the series of books by Stephen King – “The Dark Tower”, where the main character Roland is almost killed by a demon like character who employs the use of uncontrolable and unstoppable laughter to deplete and eventually kill his prey.
I refer to the lady who wrote to the producers of the Goodies to thank them for making her husbands transition to the afterlife “pleasant”, but I argure that it would have been very painful, not humurous quite scary and by no means pleasant.
That picture of the couple posing for a portrait almost had me LOLing at work! Just the look on the guy’s face, trying to contain an outburst, is enough to get me biting my fingers.
It weird, but before reading this article I was in a foul mood, but by the end of it I was almost laughing. Thanks for the uplift.
awesomeness… so many levels of awesomeness… mmm pie…
that was a great article alan, and a nice chewable length as well… love your work!
would love to see a study on what goes on in the brain when mass hysteria grips people… how does the concept transfer? any takers? it’s been something that has sponsored curiosity for a long time for me… i know laughter’s infectious but how the hell do you keep it going for that long?! i mean endorphins end up depleted after overusage… so the laughter should naturally stop effecting the individual allowing rationalisation to re-engage and a logical stop point… or it seems that way to me …
i agree completely… at least with the concept… i’m a high pressure massage therapist and the amount of times that i’ve had clients go to pieces on the table due to the amount of pain that they are in has led me to not be able to accept any other explanation… i know that the endorphine release is the same with intense pain.. maybe it’s related?
anyway thanks again alan, love your work!
Wow, that’s also DI. Has there been anything in the vet journals about it?
I’ve yet to meet a woman who thinks that the 3 Stooges are funny. Guaranteed to put me away, and I’ve seen ’em a zillion times, approximately.
First vs. pie
Although no one asked me, I find the “pie” stuff far more annoying than the “first” posts. Neither is funny, IMO, but you endure only one “first” post.
Yes, yardvark, but pie is eternal.
I can definately see how laughter could cause death. Once, as a very inebriated teenager, an apple exploding on a kitchen floor sent me into gales of laughter. While this this did not cause a slight case of death, it did prevent me from breathing long enough to pass out. This was actually very scary. If I could have dialed 911 I would not have been able to state my emergency as I COULD NOT BREATHE.
DI Alan. Keep ’em coming.
Yardvark, sorry you find pie annoying, but honestly, most people like pie, it’s so friendly.
Who doesn’t like pie? Or a good pooh joke?
“laughter has triggered a state of sharply reduced animation known as death:”
I remember my father almost going that far on the WKRP turkey episode. He fell on the floor laughing so hard that he could hardly catch his breath. Even years later all one had to say was “as God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” to cause the same reaction.
Alan, you really know how to turn a phrase, “freudian sluts” another Bellows classic.
For yet another perspective on what laughter reveals about the human condition, read Robert Heinlein’s science-fantasy classic, Stranger in a Strange Land. In addition to the title’s and the novel’s biblical allusions, Michael Valentine’s ability to laugh (finally) in front of the monkey cage at the zoo says much about our motives in laughing, as much as it does about humankind’s treatment of its own.
In regard to the possible Freudian mishap, perhaps you have seen a drawing of what psychologists call “The Freudian House.” All of the furniture has Freudian slip covers.
Yes, I’m joking about the slip covers. Just using a bit of unexpected juxtaposition of ideas for comedic effect, thereby creating a pun.
The Freudian House is real, though. Psychologists used it as they were engaged in psychoanalysis.
DI Mr. Bellows. Freudian sluts and sharp decline in animation indeed. Most interesting and titillating article.
one time in elementary school i remember seeing another kid just trip and go head first into the ground. I laughed so hard that i started to panic when i was running out of breath. The panic induced an asthma attack i wasn’t prepared for and i passed out. The nice guys in the ambulance saved me and we had a good laugh about it in the back of the ambulance.
i originally read this in my spanish class. The sarcasm and some of the comments had me laughing in class.
thanks, you all made Spanish class 10 times better.
In that Kashasha incident… the entire village was laughing, but still no one knows why
now thats funny
You dare insult the pie! The pie will destroy you! The pie is all powerful! And tasty.
ReSpEcT tEh PiE
Also, I am quite fond of spasmodic breathing and moistness.
Notice that 2 of the deaths by laughter were sparked by British comedy? Awesome! Something to write home about.
Great article. I wonder if continued exposure to comedy raises your tolerance for it? For instance, I read alot of humorous stuff on the internet, and peoples comments suggest that much hilarity has ensued (including in this thread) whereas I’ve barely raised a smile. I think I’ve received no more than 3 joke e-mails in the last year that have actually made me laugh. There are things that make me laugh, and laugh to the point where it hurts and I can’t breathe properly, but they are few and far between these days, though I have noticed that mostly it’s sparked off mostly when my girlfriend starts laughing first. When that happens, we pretty much both end up unable to talk or even breathe.
Extraordinarily sophisticated humor lie within. Oh, the incongruent infidelity!
Interesting … I suppressed chuckles throughout the article, due to Alan’s wit and my girlfriend’s desire to be sleeping in the next room. I clicked on the first link at the end, with the mistranslated Chinese menu, and I was having a hard time keeping it together. It was really weird to be laughing under my breath out of control after having just read about the phenomenon. Then, as an experiment, I read the menu link again after 5 or 10 minutes. Barely cracked a smile. I think Douglas Hofstadter would appreciate this article as did I – a humorous article about humor. Meta-DI.
“My dog has no nose…”
I would continue, but it would wipe out the entire Damn Interesting audience (wouldn’t do that to you Alan). In fact, my limbs are hurting writing so many words of it.
That was utterly fascinating! And very funny, I did giggle all the way through – and am especially proud that two of the three fatal comedy related deaths were to do with British comedy (also aware of the fact that Sid knew perfectly well it was the Monty Python sketch, he was being funny).
BTW, how do you tickle a rat?
LarsOn, not Larsen, let’s get the Master’s name right ;) but yes, there are dozens of his cartoons that no matter how many times I see, I laugh – my very fav, an ‘acme rat control’ guy at the door, and the home owner is a pack of rats “wearing” a coat and a hat (lot’s of little eyes and pointy noses sticking out) that says – yes, we did call rat control… but we changed our minds…
another very cool text, thanks Alan
Right. Right, right, stop it. This film’s got silly. Started off with a nice little idea about grannies attacking young men, but now it’s got silly. This man’s hair is too long for a vicar too. These signs are pretty badly made. Right, now for a complete change of mood…
Alan, love your work. This article had me cracking up most of the way through. Also, I’m another one who can laugh at the same joke over and over, and also, can tickle myself to an extent – although the effect is not as intense as if someone else tickles me. My boyfriend just has to look at me and say “tickle tickle” and it makes me start laughing uproariously. I guess I’m just really ticklish. But here is my joke: “What do you call a 3-legged donkey? A wonky!”
Very , very good article. See, I knew there was a reason why I continue to visit this site. Thanks, Alan.
Great article Alan, cheered me up while at work…thanks :-)
Also, don’t forget about people who laugh when nervous…my wife has laughed at funerals!
First v. pie
In a shameless attempt to defend my effort to ingratiate myself with the good rev and other pie fans, I will contend that whether or not you find either posting technique to be humorous is a matter of taste (much like whether you find pie, itself, to be tasty), but efforts to incorporate pie into a comment at least require a small bit of thought, while use of “First!” requires only good timing. Then again, some might argue the most important aspect of humor is
Wait for it
“Attempts at tickling the robot elicited no response even at significantly higher delay settings”
Oh, Alan…you cad!
A DI article on the Kashasha, Tanganyika incident is overdue. When I first encountered a description of the incident, it was described as one big laugh attack that lasted for days. The Wikipedia entry on the incident describes it as an incident of mass hysteria that only started with laughter, and while its victims experienced physically uncomfortable symptoms that were punctuated by laughing spells, laughter among the victims was more the exception than the rule. I’d like to know more about what really happened. But still…what was so damn funny? I’ll never understand Tanzanian humor.
I, too, recalled Dandelo from King’s “Dark Tower”. And I would add that the Tower series is why I stopped reading Stephen King. Writing himself in as a character (not to mention writing an earlier book in as a plot device) was self-importance of an unforgivable degree. Adieu, Monsieur King.
How does he smell?
Ah, yes . . . Dandelo of Odd’s Lane . . . I’m surprised that somebody else thought of that too.
Perhaps, but since she was apparently there when it happened, she may be a better judge of how he went. Heart attacks can be quite sudden, so if he was laughing for 25 minutes, then the old muscle seized up all of a sudden, he could very well have gone as she described, rather pleasantly, never knowing what hit him until the very end.
No danger here. That was Hitler’s counter-joke, which yielded little in the way of lethal results. I think the most to worry about are a few minor injuries, but we may want to be on the lookout in case some regular posters stop posting.
But what about broken jokes?
“So this guy walks into a bar with a giraffe, and he orders drinks for himself and the giraffe, and the girafe keeps drinking until it gets drunk and falls down on the floor. The guy starts to leave, and the bartender calls after him ‘Hey! You can’t leave that lyin’ there!’, and the guy says, ‘Oh, sorry’. “
Funnier than the original. (Or it may be just me being stressed at work recently…)
This article was really funny! Maybe the stress/danger thing explains why horror movies are so funny.
Nope it was Monty Python
[pedantry]Alan, I think you mean “syllable-transposing” rather than “syllable-juxtaposing.” To juxtapose two things is to put them next to one another, while to transpose them means to swap them, as in a Spoonerism.[/pedantry]
DI (and DF, damn funny) article!
thank you Mr. Data for such a wonderful explanation of humour and laughter. Laughed my brains out just reading the article… it’s perfect, really made my day :)
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha :DNow isn’t that so true!
Nice article! Laughter is indeed very very dangerous! I once mimicked a person which made my friend laugh out uncontrollably while she was driving the car. If she turned the steering wheel a teensy bit while laughing and driving at that speed….
Not too weird, it could simply be the types of jokes. Some people like slapstick humor with a little bit of background (stooges) while others just like to see others get hurt (jackass). Sometimes the way a joke is told, or what the joke is about may not be funny to you because you have heard it told a certain way many times an illicit no response to others. Sometimes those joke emails are just annoying spam and that is why you dont laugh.
You may read those emails hurriedly expecting something out of them, when a joke should generally be a bit more spontaneous. Alternately, you expect them not to make you laugh, so they bounce off you because you have a preconception they are going to be lame.
“In 1998 Dr. Itzhak Fried at the University of California at Los Angeles discovered that some laughter circuits route through the left frontal lobe as well. He was conducting some electrical stimulation of a teenage girl’s brain in an effort to find the source of her epileptic seizures.”…
I don’t think that I’d want a guy named “Dr. Fried” electrically stimulating MY brain!
I just finished the series not 2 weeks ago and it didn’t occur to me until the first mention of it here. I’m rather ashamed, actually. Anywho, his write-ins were questionable (I didn’t mind the Salem’s Lot write-in, as he says that ALL of his books are related to the series); I’m about as easily pleased as one can be and it even bothered me a bit. Not enough to stop reading him, but it certainly pulled me outta the story.
Digressions aside, DI article, Alan! It is a rare day that I actually laugh hard enough to render myself breathless. I usually just laugh-out-loud when I find something entertaining, even though it wouldn’t draw more than a smile out of me if I let nature dictate my reaction. This article (and most of yours, in fact) pull that good ole fashioned unrestrainable laughter outta me.
Here’s a question for the lot of you: can you watch that laughing baby clip with a straight face?
Speaking of Aptonyms…
Ahh true. I stand corrected.
“Mein Hundt hat kein Nase….”
Ooo, a particularly worthy DI, one of the better mindstims.
More than once in my life, I’ve had the stirrings of laughter at some spots of awareness, times where I recall some reasonable fact I hear about and go through a “Hey, that makes sense” when I think it through and make the connection, like some biological point or maybe mechanical physics. A little giggly is all, never happened often, but it really makes the congruence idea appeal to me.
That’s on top of a bundle of other deductions that seem sound, DI indeed.
Ah. An ancient Chinese art-form. Mr Sid, you are an educated man, I see.
Prank Place now has laughing mirrors, up for sale:
A perfect gag gift for kids with too much vanity!
About ten years back, as a friend was driving three of us stooges, along for a small desert adventure, I started playing an old audio tape from 1990 that (half-jokingly) claimed my lifelong dream was to go up in space in a lawn chair -tethered by hundreds of helium balloons and a B-B gun for ballast purposes. The friend driving, begin laughing to the verge of tears. During his spasmodic breathing and convulsions, he could barely see the road and had to reach deep within to not wreck.
Five years later, when the next wave of amateur lawn chair balloonists came into vogue, he called me to tell me other people were achieving my lifelong dream, which started me laughing so hard, I immediately pulled over from driving as a joke-proof preemptive measure.
Ah, Spike, “milk and cookies”, maybe a slice of pie.
Q: What did the boy in the wheel chair get for Christmas?
How would you interpret your response to this joke?
you see… this is a tough one.. a buddy of mine told it too me and it made me feel dirty as I shook my head in disapproval and held in the staccato breath I couldn’t control.
I laugh at really awkward or stressful moments.. an outer-body experience, viewing my life in a way that an audience would watch a film. Although not intentional, it’s a great stress reliever.. a kind of ‘what the hell can I do?’ acknowledgment when things get rough. If only I could control this laughter when I’m talking about the future with a love interest…
Reminds me of the gallows humor:
Q: What is the difference between Sloan-Kettering and Shea Stadium?
A: At Sloan-Kettering, the mets always win.
On the bright side, here is an extract from convulsing episode of when Superman meets Lucy:
Then something brighter, which may require an extract of Kryptonite to keep from laughing too hardily:
Damn interesting. Damn well written.
Enjoyed the sprinkles of humour.
Know why there’s no airport where Peter Pan lives?
All the maps say to “Never Never Land”
Really late comer on this one, I’ve been putting it off for a few days..
Can I just say though, fantastically written (as always), but I’m always kept especially interested by the scientific/medical background over something we do so commonly as to laugh.
Made me think of saying “gelotolepsy” for “ROFL” from now on.
…and here I thought all along that a “gelotologist”…was someone that study gelatin! Curses, foiled again. Exit, stage left…
I’m missin’ radiatidon. He always brings good pie to the DInner table.
I particularly like completely absurd humor.
Scroll slowly, if you please.
Why did the plane crash?
Because the pilot was a loaf of bread.
What’s big, green, and fuzzy, has four legs, and if it fell out of a tree, it would kill you?
A pool table.
Q: What did one farmer say to the other farmer?
A: Guess we’re farmers.
But what about the jokes that don’t make sense, which leave you wondering if you should be laughing at all – while your laughing anyway because you ‘know’ you’ll find out where the humor in the joke lies… and you don’t want to look/feel dumb:
Q: Why is a cow?
A: Because one of its legs are both alike.
Q: What did the table leg say to the chair leg?
A: Dick Tracey!
or maybe this just fall into absurdity.
Q: What do you get when you cross an ape with a calculator?
A: A Hairy Reasoner
Q; What do you get when you cross a photocopier with a Wurlitzer?
A: A reproductive organ.
Interesting the idea of laughing/endorphins and the brain giving significance to something.
I teach biology and use humour a lot, my students get good grades and laugh a lot, I’d put this down to feel good factor and just enjoying the lesson, but when I use humorous stories e.g. to explain DNA transcription e.g. doing silly voices for a mRNA molcule coming out with a string of expletives as it tries to get out of a nuclear pore etc. perhaps has more value than I’d first thought. I’ve also taught them to put protein synthesis to tunes like ‘My way’ but explained not to make the lyrics dull but add humourous bits, that don’t quite fit the sobriety of the ideas. Feeds in well with the humour theories of unexpected stupidity in a norml pattern.
I’ve also experienced the pathological laughter concept, my mother died of motor neurone disease (Lou Gehrig’s) and yet could be stimulated into hysterical laughter surprisingly easily considering she had a deadly conditon.
Also the fairground ride reminded me of being up the top of a terrifying ride called big ben, where I laughed in a chattering hysterical way waiting for us to drop, which stimulated nervous hiccupy type laughing in my companions too.
…what do you get when you cross a potato with a sponge?
I don’t know, but it sure holds a lot of gravy.
…what do you get when you cross a donkey with an onion?
A piece of ass that brings tears to your eyes! :-)
How do you create a woman?
You cross a dung beatle with a cow – then you get something with breasts that looks for sh*t all day long.Kinda hard for a springbok to agree with a kiwi, but right on.
And to quote Battlestar Galactica… “Would you please stop with the fracking pie jokes”.
I knew a Freudian slut who once said to me, “Is that a cigar in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Sadly, I had to respond, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” ;-)
BTW, “groundbreaking rat-tickling experiments” was the most laughter inducing line for me. Thanks.
Gotta admit….I laughed out loud at that one. Not sure why….might be the shock factor that made it funny for me.
This is my First Comment. I justed wanted to say I really enjoy DI : Interesting topics, brilliantly (and, important, cleverly) written, and some interesting comments thrown into the mix.
This article caused me to be rather beneficial for plant life. Thanks
that’s a good one!
hey so, any ideas on how to start a laughter epidemic?
Bartender, I’d like to order a cocktail of natural feel-good biochemicals with a twist of lime.
Q. Why do they put tall fences around grave yards?
A. Because people are dyin’ to get in.
A Rabbi, a Priest, and a Monk walk into a bar and the bartender said “Is this a joke?”
The foremost palindromic FIRST instance:
https://www.damninteresting.com/?p=270 – comment-19665
In mixed company, some girls will pretend that they like The 3 Stooges, to try to be civil! Eventually these pretenders become exposed, although I secretly believe that somewhere there is a group of true woman Stooge aficionados. Along the same comedy lines, Alfalfa from Our Gang was president of the Woman Haters club, but he was continually exposed kissing Darla, behind wooden fences.
Similarly, I once had a roommate who adamantly proclaimed that she did not enjoy the Stooges humor and that they held absolutely no redeeming value, until one day a groundbreaking rip-tickling, experiment occurred in our home:
Lots of guffaws in there, but this last one had me laughing out loud:
“Additionally, the accelerated breathing rate which accompanies laughter expels increased amounts of carbon dioxide, which is beneficial for plant life.”
I guess I’m a sucker for incongruities.
Warning: Very politically incorrect humour.
Q: What’s funnier than a dead baby?
A: A dead baby in a clown costume.
Since you started it pauh_EST, this was the funniest joke to me when I was 13 or so (assumes familiarity with the riddle ‘What’s black and white and read/red all over?’):
What’s black and white, read/red all over and has trouble getting through a revolving door?
A nun with a spear through her head.
No, it doesn’t seem quite so funny today… sorry for that.
Been reading your articles for quite a while now, only registered today. DI!!
Just wish to share some personal experience.
I sometimes enter, what I call ‘frenzies’ of laughter. I’m unable to breath due to my abdomen/diaphram (however you spell either and whichever does the job) starts, basically, vibrating so much that my entire body goes into a spasm. I’m fully aware of my surroundings during these times and usually have to give people a thumbs up to show that I’m OK, becuase they think I get a fit. It usually stops just as I’m about to run out of breath and sometimes, when I breathe once, it starts again. One time I literally fell to the floor, passing out because I was unable to get air soon enough from these laughing frenzies. Needless to say, when I got round again and realized what happened, I thought it was so funny I started all over again, but by then people were a bit concerned and tried to calm me.
What a fascinating article! I especially enjoyed reading about Dr. Fried working on the gal’s frontal lobes and the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic — that was hilarious just thinking that laughter could spread for 6-18 months amongst a city. Amazing.
For those who wonder about ticklish rats….
Rats REALLY enjoy a good tickeling. My rat named Pinky loved to be tickled on her stomach. I would scratch her tummy and she would run around the cage very excited then run back and stand on her hind legs to bare her belly again and they do make a faint noise. Much like my two year old niece. All animals enjoy a good tickeling!
Caught the last section of a show on Laughter on Radio Lab yesterday:
It covers much of the same territory, and this article is referenced in a comment for the section “How Does Laughing Affect Us?”
It’s the giggle loop!
‘Basically it’s like a feedback loop. You’re somewhere quiet. There’s people. It’s a solemn occasion. A wedding! No! It’s a minute silence for someone who’s died. OK, a minute silence ticking away…. The giggle loop begins! Suddenly, out of nowhere this thought comes into your head: “The worst thing I could possibly do during a minute silence is laugh.” And as soon as you think that you almost do laugh, automatic reaction. But you don’t! You control yourself. You’re fine! But then you think how terrible it would have been if you’d laughed out loud in the middle of a minute silence. And so you nearly do it again only this time it’s a bigger laugh. And then you think how awful this bigger laugh would have been and so you nearly laugh again only this time it’s a very big laugh. It’s an enormous laugh. Let this bastard out and you get whiplash. And suddenly you’re in the middle of this completely silent room and your shoulders are going like you’re drilling the road and when you think of this situation — Oh dear Christ, you think it’s funny!’
-Richard Coyle (playing Geoff), ‘Coupling’
used to happen to me in church… :)
yeah…heehee…i hate when people tell you jokes that are mean, but you cant help laughing…cancer for christmas… who makes these????
A pal and I got into the giggle loop in a college geography class during a lecture. The guy sitting in front of us had a short haircut and a big fly kept landing in it. He’d make a big swipe at it, but it would return in a few seconds. I finally stood up and rushed out of the room because I thought I was going to explode. My pal later said he was going to do the same if I hadn’t. The teacher was pretty cool not to ever mention the incident.
It brought tears to my eyes and a couple of uncontrolable giggles just writing this and I can still see that fly landing on that guy’s head!
This was pretty funny to me, thanks Alan! That dude in the picture made me pretty weak too.
“Cannibals who feast upon fellow humans’ brains are also vulnerable to the fatal Kuru disease, one of the symptoms of which is spontaneous laughter.” I’ll definately check up on this disease that sounds interesting fo’ sho.
Having read my article/paper: Laughter as a displacement activity, John Morreall wrote to me saying that Provine’s work and my ideas were instumental in him developing his “false alarm” theory of laughter. If anyone would like to read the piece they can access it through the Humorlinks site. Just scroll down to the picture of the blind men and the elephant (A new perspective on laughter and humor)
A theory of laughter and humor that critically examines the main theories and unites their pertinent aspects into a new hypothesis.The endorphin/laughter controversy is discussed and an explanation of laughter’s immunological effects is given “This is an original and well-developed argument that deserves attention and serious consideration.” Diana Mahony, Ph.D Professor of Psychology. “I would suggest that you submit this paper to the journal HUMOR for publication.” John Morreall
I realize I’m quite late here, but regarding the “no women like the Three Stooges” stuff:
I am a 29-year-old female and I have LOVED them for many years. So do my older sisters as well as my mother. If you can’t find any ladies who love the Stooges, you are not looking well enough!
(Seriously, all someone has to do is say “Niagara Falls!” to me in that certain tone of voice, and I am helpless with laughter. It’s so funny to me that sometimes I laugh just hearing the words “Niagara Falls”, even when someone is talking about it seriously.)
In case anybody wonders, I far prefer Shemp in the line-up to Curly/Joe/Curly-Joe. And Larry is my absolute favorite; it’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get nearly enough love from most Stooges fans!
And let us not forget:
Westley: You chose wrong.
Vizzini: Ha! You only think I chose wrong! I switched the goblets while you weren’t looking! You just made one of the classic blunders! The most famous, of course, is “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” but only slightly less well known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha! Haha! Hahahahahahahahahahahahha!
(Vizzini enters a state of sharply reduced animation.)
And Wallace Shawn claimed to have no sense of humor…
I went into a laughing jag once at work, it was the worst experience I’ve had short of opiate withdrawl, and only because that lasts longer.
I don’t even remember the joke in question, it was one of those randomly tossed off one line responses to a comment that just struck me funny. It struck all of us funny, but I was the chump who kept laughing, and kept laughing till tears streamed down my face, my belly cramped, and everyone had backed away from me looking askance, which of course only made me laugh harder. At first some of the guys would smile and repeat the line when it looked like I was in danger of recovery, but by the time the smile was long gone from my face and I was gasping in breath between laughs they would only ask if I was okay, in which case I would remember the damn joke and go off again. Finally, 2 hours (no exaggeration) later it tapered off to small giggles and I could work a little bit again, but outbreaks would still hit me and all my laugh systems would go off again, but by now I had built up so much lactic acid in those parts that it was acutely painful to laugh. I coudln’t drive home, I got a ride from a concerned friend. For the next two days I was in severe pain from muscles and joints and things outraged far beyond their normal use, and was the subject of much wispering and finger-pointing for a couple weeks.
And the worst part? I cannot for the life of me remember what the hell it was that was so funny.
Oh, and I forgot to mention.
I can third the ticklish rat story. My daughter’s rat Sniffers was so tame we never locked his cage, he came out and hung out whenever he wanted company, and went back to and stayed in his cage whenever he wanted to sleep, eat/drink or just be a rat. He also loved nothing so much as being tickled during ‘ratty wrestling’ as my daughter put it, to the point where he would come up and instigate the hand-wrestling and immediately flop onto his back exposing his belly for tickles while he prentended to bite and squirm, ‘laughing’ the whole time. ;-)
Rats are awesome. It’s a shame they have such a bad rap.
“Sexual intercourse also rewards the participants with a cocktail of natural feel-good biochemicals, perhaps as a means to encourage the development of the pornography industry, which is vital to a strong economy.” – Thank you for that. You owe me a coffee and a new keyboard.
Eleven years since I last posted.
Hard to believe.
Checking back in.
I am back.
And yet again.
I am returned.
Here I am again.
Back again, and I am not laughing.