The Loh Down On Science

Scientists explore how our brain interprets different kinds of laughter

Image courtesy of Wildgruber and others, PLOS ONE, 2013.

Red: the brain areas stimulated by complex social laughter. Green: the brain areas stimulated by tickling laughter. Blue: the brain areas where we process what social laughter means.

We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you!  Or are we?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Primates, the non-human ones, use what's called reflex laughter to bond:  How?   Duh!  They tickle each other!  Tickling stimulates specific nerves.  These link to brain regions that generate knee-jerk chuckles!

Human laughter is more evolved.  In addition to tickling laughter, our repertoire includes social laughter.  Laughter with a message, it conveys joy, mocking, and plenty more.

German neuropsychiatrists wondered:  What happens in our brains during these various laughters?

To find out, they played laughter recordings to male college students.  While they listened, functional magnetic resonance imaging captured images of their brain activity.

Results?  During joyful and mocking laughter, brain areas that process complex social information became active.  Not so for tickling.

In surveys, the students identified recordings of social laughter more accurately than tickling laughter.

The researchers say this shows we process social laughters much like we process language. This helps us react appropriately to others.

Like when they tickle us for science.  And we slap them.  Laughingly of course!

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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