“Everybody laughs the same in every language because laughter is a universal connection. ”
Yakov Smirnoff

I went two years without cable, relying on Netflix and Hulu+ for most of what I wanted to watch.  With a presidential election looming, however, I simply couldn’t resist the siren song of endless punditry paraded out in front of me on every cable and broadcast channel for the next couple of weeks.  I knew if I got cable for that purpose, I’d also once again lose hours in front of the television laughing as people pawn their family heirlooms and useless junk, try to survive on a remote tropical island, and speculate about ancient astronauts, UFO conspiracies, and the end of the world.  I think I love watching that stuff almost as much as I love watching straight up documentaries about the origins of the universe or animal behavior, even when (and maybe especially because) it makes me lament the lack of critical thinking skills from some of the people on these shows.

So I gave in and got cable again.

And, true to form, if I am home the television is on.  So, unsurprisingly, I was doing some work one morning last week with the TV on when my attention was caught by the sound of laughter.  I looked up in time to see this commercial:

This may be just a commercial, but it is delightful  I found myself laughing along with it as I watched.  I laughed again when I tracked the video down on YouTube.   Laughter, as we see from this ad, knows virtually no boundaries.  Not age.  Not race.  Not gender.  We are all capable of laughter, from the beginning of our life until the end.  This means it is an integral part of our nervous system, as well as an important behavior.

When do we begin laughing, and how does our laughter change as we grow older?  I’d originally thought to write about development of laughter, but I got sidetracked by the fact that the answer to these questions, and indeed the questions themselves are anything but simple since laughter is such a complicated subject.  For example, Meyer, Baumanne, Wildgruber, and Alter (2007) mention an intriguing point about laughter and why it is of interest to researchers.  They report on a widely held opinion that laughter may be a link between animal vocalizations and human speech, with the focus on the affective component of vocalizations across species.  Because laughter takes advantage of our vocal apparatus, and is presumed to have a social and communicative function, understanding laughter is tied to understanding how it is similar and how it is different from speech.  This was one of the surprises as I was looking into this, and in retrospect I guess it shouldn’t have been.  But I always simply considered that we speak, and that we laugh, and never stopped to realize that we often do both together.  Or that the same structures we use to speak are also used to laugh.  It wasn’t until I was writing up my last blog entry, and reviewing Darwin’s book on emotions that it occurred to me that they are probably very related in the brain.

Interestingly, according to Meyer, et al (2007), there is no “laughing center” in the brain.  While the same might be said of language, there are clear areas associated with language in the brain, most notably Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area.

The insular cortex.  Click the picture to read an interesting blog entry about the insular cortex.

They say that laughter seems to be more distributed in the brain.  Major emotion centers of the brain, particularly structures found in the limbic system (such as the amygdala, the thalamus, and the hypothalamus) become active when we laugh, along with many structures from the frontal lobes to the brainstem that mediate motor behavior (for the physical behavior of laughing).  When participants were exposed to laughter, backwards laughter, and silence, the amygdala only became active to the sound of regular laughter.  They suggest that the amygdala, the insula, and areas of the superior temporal lobe particularly mediate the perception and affective responses to laughter (Meyer, et al).  Incidentally, this blog has made me very curious about the insular cortex, since it seems to play a special role in socially mediated emotions, such as embarrassment, among other things.

So I think it’s kind of fitting that an advertisement became the inspiration for this blog entry.  An ad is nothing if not an attempt to communicate, to evoke some kind of emotion from the person viewing it.  In this case, the makers of the ad want to sell you a car, but they chose to go about it without ever once showing you a picture of said car or using much in the way of language (and in fact, no spoken language at all).  Instead, they use a fundamental human behavior, one that taps quickly into the emotion centers of our brain, such as the amygdala and the insula, to evoke an emotional state in us that they undoubtedly hope you will associate with their product.

Most importantly, however, I like to think that the makers of this particular ad also wanted to remind us how integral laughter is to the human condition.

References

Meyer, M., Baumanne, S., Wildgruber, D., & Alter, K. (2007). How the brain laughs: Comparative evidence from behavioral, electrophysiological and neuroimaging studies in human and monkey. Behavioral Brain Research, 182, 245-260.

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