The Funny Business of Laughter

Focus:

Chortling, sniggering, guffawing, tittering – it has so many names and yet it is one of the most mysterious aspects of human behaviour. Emma Bayley investigates a very peculiar habit.

If an alien were to land on our planet and take a stroll among a crowd of earthlings, it would notice that the low hum of speech was regularly interjected by much louder exhalations and that these outbreaths were chopped into ‘ha-ha’ fragments. It might wonder what purpose this strange habit served. If we ask ourselves what triggers a good chortle, the obvious answer is that it is a response to something we find funny. But one scientist, Robert Provine, who has spent nearly two decades studying laughter, says that humour has surprisingly little to do with it. Instead, it seems to lie at the root of such lofty questions as the perception of self and the evolution of speech, language and social behaviour.

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