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Read from Thumbs:


Howls, Hoots, and Calls

The Creature That Weeps

The Language of Lips


Walker Books

About Thumbs, Toes & Tears

And other traits that make us the strange and remarkable creatures we are

Can you imagine ever falling in love with someone you have never laughed with? Can you imagine getting through a day without at least a titter, a chuckle, something that tickled you? And did you ever notice, you can never predict when you're about to laugh. In fact, the more surprising, the better the laugh. Why is that?

From Chapter 8 -"Howls, Hoots, and Calls"

Two cannibals are sitting beside a large fire after eating the best meal they have had in ages.
"Your wife sure makes a good roast," says the one cannibal.
"Yeah," replies the other, "I'm really going to miss her."

-- Anonymous

Laughter is one of the great mysteries of human nature. It evades understanding and resists analysis. Yet we barely acknowledge what an unusual behavior it is, mostly because it is so woven into our lives. Like the noses on our faces and the lobes of our ears, it is familiar to the point of invisibility. But if it were suddenly plucked out of our existence, we would be lost because we use it constantly to send strange and mysterious signals to one another.

The social nature of laughter tells us that its origins are ancient and wordless, something whose roots run a good deal deeper than the evolutionary wellsprings of language. It is related to play and feeling good although it isn't simply about fun. Darwin observed it can also show up when we are feeling anger, shame or nervousness; acting to mask, rather than display emotion. At other times it may communicate appeasement or submission. Or as Dante put it, "He is not always at ease who laughs."

The social nature of laughter also makes it contagiousness. When someone laughs, the rest of us almost always do the same. This is why Charles Douglass, a television technician, invented the laugh track in 1953, and why it is still effectively used today to make some sitcom jokes seem funnier than they actually are. It is why, even when we watch total strangers laughing about something that we know nothing about, we will involuntarily smile or chuckle.

Maybe this explains laughter's universality. Everyone laughs, no matter where he lives, no matter what her race or background, whether he hunts corporate heads among the skyscrapers of Manhattan or real ones in the rain forests of Borneo. It sews us together as a species and as people. Along with big toes and thumbs and our oddly designed throats, it is one of those unique traits that distinguish us from the other animals.

Despite its familiarity and universality we are almost entirely clueless about how we have become a laughing creature. It is difficult business getting to the naked root of any human behavior, especially laughter, because of its ephemeral and elusive, nature. There is no obvious, practical reason for laughing. If evolution resolutely favors the emergence of the eminently practical, what possible reason could it serve? It's loud and calls attention to us — not necessarily a good thing when avoiding carnivores on the savannah, or hunting mammoths on the tundra. And when we laugh we tend to lose control, as though our minds and bodies have been hijacked, also not a recommended survival technique. Nor is laughing at predators really a very good idea, at least not unless it is done well after the hunt, by a campfire, in a cave, far, far away.

In the crucible of evolution, behaviors also tend to become increasingly entwined in the traffic of other complex behaviors, and after a while it becomes maddeningly difficult to unravel one from the other. So we find it hard to know if laughs came before smiles or the other way around. Why one thing sounds funny while another looks funny? Or why laughter always surprises us? Understanding the origins of laughter requires a kind of psychological archeology that forces us to compare glimpses of some of our closest primate relatives to the careful observation of ourselves...

Origins of Laughter

Darwin noticed that the facial expression of a person laughing often looked identical to someone who was crying. But it was the British zoologist Desmond Morris who first speculated in his popular book The Naked Ape that the origin of laughter might actually be directly linked to crying.

In the earliest months of life we have one primary way of expressing fear, loneliness, pain or any other discomfort. We bawl, long and loud. It is a simple way of making our point, but highly effective. Any parent can tell you that.

During our first 90 days, we do this indiscriminately. Parental recognition is, basically, non-existent, and pretty much any old adult will do as long as he or she fixes the baby's problems — fresh diaper, food, warmth. At this point in life, all faces appear neutral, and therefore good because infants at this age simply don't have the cognitive firepower to know the difference between a familiar face and a strange one.

But then around the fourth month, at some very basic level, the brain begins to wire up connections that enable us to recognize the primary caregivers in our lives. Oddly enough this is also the age at which we begin to smile and giggle, an immense milestone in human relationships. Mothers and fathers live for a child's first laugh because it marks the first time they experience some kind of two-way communication with their offspring; something that says, "I know you! You are special!" Their child is reacting not simply to basic, faceless needs like an empty stomach, but to mom and dad themselves. That produces a powerful bond. It marks the beginning of a relationship that is personal, not just practical.

Looked at this way, you can view a baby's laugh as a survival technique. Since human babies are essentially born 10 months early compared with other primates, we enter the world the most helpless mammals on the planet. We require prodigious doses of parental commitment and care. We are easily injured; we are unable, literally, to hold our heads up for months and incapable of navigating. We demand coddling, feeding and attention day and night.

But a baby's laugh provides a powerful emotional gift that encourages her care. The more laughter, the more bonding, the more bonding, the better the chances of survival. It is a tremendously powerful feedback loop. This may explain why across every culture, parents play with their babies to encourage them laugh.

But what could have put this play-laugh feedback loop in motion in the first place? Morris explains it this way: imagine you are a prehistoric four-month-old cruising along in the arms of your mother when suddenly you are startled. Being four months old, your immediate reaction is to cry. But in another split second you realize everything must be okay because you are firmly and safely in the grip of your mother, and your mother reassures you with a coo that everything is fine. Suddenly your fears quickly reverse, and you are utterly relieved. You interrupt your crying with a yip of recognition that chops the incipient long loud bawl down into smaller ha-ha-ha's.

As Morris envisioned it, this combination of mixed input sent a seemingly contradictory message: (1) There's danger, but (2) not really; you are fine. This is the whiplash effect at its most basic. Maybe, he has speculated, laughter evolved from this combination of alarm and relief.

The thing about play is that it too is, from an evolutionary standpoint, all about incongruous opposites. It seems to be about fun, but really it's a survival technique. Mock fighting, biting, tumbling and chasing among young mammals provides a kind of dry run for real the battles that will follow.

A big part of playing among primates involves tickling, Young chimps and gorillas spend a lot of time getting tickled either by their immediate family, or by one another. This has caused some researchers to propose that the building blocks of humor might be built upon the foundations of nature's tickle reflex.

Tickling, after all, exhibits many of the same dynamics that more sophisticated humor does. There is the element of surprise, for example, which may help explain why it's impossible for us to tickle ourselves (your supplemental motor area won't allow it). Tickling also juxtaposes danger and safety, pleasure and discomfort. It is a kind of mock attack. Neurological tests even indicate that the sensation of a tickle travels simultaneously along two separate sets of nerves fibers evolved to register completely opposite sensations: one for pleasure and one for pain...

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