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What are the origins of humor and laughter?

  1. May 24, 2014 #1
    The more I think about this, the more mystified I become:

    What are the origins of humor and laughter?
    Why do we find anything funny at all?
    Who or what was the first thing to laugh on Earth and what did they find funny?
    Can evolution actually explain this strange behavioral phenomenon? What survival value could laughing your *** off possibly have?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 24, 2014 #2
    I think you may be oversimplifying the situation. Laughter is a part of socialization, which is self evidently a trait that has been selected for in human and animal evolution. Socialization allows for humans (and other animals) to protect themselves as well as share resources, skills etc. Laughter, I'm imagining, is likely a byproduct of the extreme form of socialization development by humans.

    You may also consider that sexual selection may have played a part. I can imagine the first stand up comic cave man having a good deal if luck with the ladies, if you know what I mean (thats only a half joke by the way).
  4. May 29, 2014 #3
    There are several types of humor. Freud concentrated on humor that involves forbidden topics. It is a sort of back door. Pinker thinks all humor is lese majestie, ridicule of authority figures. They are both right, but there is more to humor than that. Neither explains why "Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side." is funny. To me, this falls into the category known as wit.

    I think that it has to do with what artificial intelligence researchers used to call "truth maintenance." It is necessary to keep false information out of your data base. The goal of wit is to get someone to accept some false info or jump to a wrong conclusion, then reveal it as false. The victim spits it back up, and that is laughter. Note how similar laughter is sneezing, coughing, and vomiting, similar things where something gets part way down and needs to be expelled. Also note how wit depends on novelty. The second time around the listener won't swallow the hook, so no expulsion, no laughter.

    An example of wit is "I was on a plane and they said the pilot had had a stroke! They asked if anyone was willing to fly the plane. I said I'd give it a try. Would you believe it, it took me two hours just to taxi to the runway."

    Humor has survival value as an exercise of the truth maintenance function, sort of like play fighting. Like play fighting, the joke usually has a ritual introduction to make it clear that a joke is coming, to put the listeners on guard so they will not be embarrassed or angered by having been fooled without warning. "A priest, a cop, and an undertaker walk into a bar..."

    "Why did the chicken cross the road?" is a specialized form of wit I call metahumor. The listener expects an exercise of their truth maintenance system, but it doesn't happen. So the listener has been led to make a false assumption, but in an unexpected way. Here's another. "Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Noam Chomsky walk into a bar. Werner asks, 'Is this real or is it a joke?' Kurt replies, 'If it is a joke it is funny, but we can't tell from within a joke whether it is funny or not." Noam adds, "Of course its funny. You're just telling it wrong.'"
  5. May 29, 2014 #4
    The OP is interested in the biology and the evolution of laughter. Can everybody who posts please list proper and reputable references for their statements?
  6. May 31, 2014 #5
    I was just taking a guess and trying to guide further research/discussion. Here is something interesting I found in a 5min Google Scholar search using "laughter evolution" as search terms. It is only an abstract but may shed a bit of light to aid in further discussion/research.

    The Evolution and Functions of Laughter and Humor: A Synthetic Approach.

    The abstract kind of corroborates what I was saying with my guess. Laughter is not simply a trait in and of itself but is related to the phenomenon of socialization in animals.
  7. Jun 6, 2014 #6


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    If you back up a bit, you should ask yourself 2 questions "What laughs, and what is laughter", and "Is laughter a part of some greater behavior, inate or learned for humans, or other creatures?

    On the road of evolution, inate objects became alive objects, in a matter of speaking. Of course, one would not expect a chair or a rock to laugh, or to have an emotional response at all. What about living creatures? Do singular celled organisms, such as an ameoba, or bacteria, laugh? What about higher organisms, such as a lobster, a fish, a frog, an ant, a dog, an owl, a snake?

    Of some you would say no, and be quite probably correct. Bees and ants form social groups, called hives and nests, but their behavior can be considered robotic or innate. Certain fish species form a social group called a school, and swim together en mass. Does, or would a sense of humour be benefial for these species, or an individual of the species, survival? ( Perhaps fish, if they do like jokes have only the same one they tell over and over and still oddly find funny, along the lines of Bob Fish: Let's go. Here comes a tuna. Sally Fish: I just have to swim faster than you. )

    Althoug insects and ameobas, for example are not considered to have emotion, does a reptile? If you take a look at page 3, you will find a simple picture of the parts of a mammalian brain. After studying that comprehending the discussion one question to then ask is, does a lizard have humour as part of its emotional response, but if so, can it really appreciate a good joke?


    ( push the previous/next or arrow buttons as the index does not seem to work )

    Hope that helps and gives some answers to your inquiry.
  8. Jun 17, 2014 #7
    I think Yanick is probably closest to the mark. Laughter like arithmetic began in legend, to borrow and expand on a line from Jacob Bronowski. It definitely was a social adaptation. Unfortunately, I don't think god loves us enough to have given us the pleasureness of laughter just for it's own sake, and I've debated few naysayers publicly on this point. But the million dollar question is....What was the adaptive advantage of a hearty guffaw.:rofl:

    From what I can gather as a neurobiologist, the answer lies in the concept of "unlearning." What is unlearning? Colloquially, we can say that it is the manner in which brains "relax" their networks in order to reform to change to adapt to a new situation. A new world order, if you will. Jean Piaget referred to this as the process of equilibration, utilizing the processes of assimilation and accommodate in particular. I recommend reading "The psychology of the child" or "Genetic epistemology" by Piaget and Inhelder if you are interested.

    We can say from a neurobiological perspective that this unlearning is a process whereby the strengths of the synaptic connections between neurons weaken in particular instances. These connections weaken in order to allow the network to reorganize to adapt to some new challenge. One thing that people, even and especially scientists, have a hard time accepting is that WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW is just as important as what you do know. What you do know constrains the information flow in your brain in a way that can interfere with a "paradigm change," if you will.

    The brain seems to have a mechanism to accomodate the unlearning process. It involves the release of certain neurohormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, I believe. That's not my specific field of research, but there's a good deal of research going on. You can start by looking into the book "Societies of brains.": http://www.amazon.it/Societies-Brains-Study-Neuroscience-Love/dp/0805820167

    So, in a roundabout way this gets back to laughter. In my opinion, and this is just a personal opinion, laughter is a human biological adaptation that evolved to accommodate a form of "social unlearning." If you really think about what it is that actually makes things funny, I think you will find the the core commonality is that humor deals with the unexpected. Look at the late night talk show monologues, every joke is set up in the identically same way, the first part is a seemingly innocuous and boring recount of a current event, and the punchline is something bizarre and unexpected. What is likely happening there is that your brain is releasing neurohormones at that point to accommodate the unexpected punchline. It's relaxing the synaptic weights between the neurons to process the unexpectedness (e.g., in case you needed to develop a different suite of motor capacities to avoid danger, etc.), while simultaneously releasing pleasure-related neuropeptides to reward you for processing that change. And ensure that it runs through to completion.
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