Now then everybody, please settle down, this is serious. Fun time is over, we have rats to tickle.
Laughter, it seems, is a topic of scientific inquiry that is ripe to be taken very seriously. As explained in an article at PhysOrg, the act of laughter is universal and sounds pretty much the same across all of humanity, with no discernible difference in how it sounds to the ear as a result of differences in language or culture. And not only is laughter among the very first forms of communication that every single human being learns, laughter is not limited to people. Other primates are known to laugh. Additionally, and perhaps surprisingly, laughter is also demonstrated in dogs and rats.
The common denominator in situations that cause someone to have a ha-ha moment seems to be interaction with others. According to scientists who investigate the causes and the effects of laughing, the primary basis for these strange, involuntary respiratory convulsions that we all do is a reaction to an event that we perceive and respond to as an experience shared with others. Laughing is not dependent on any one specific sense (as PhysOrg points out, “deaf people laugh without hearing, and people on cell phones laugh without seeing”), but arises from our interactions.
“It’s joy, it’s positive engagement with life. It’s deeply social,” according to Bowling Green University psychologist Jaak Panksepp. Among Panksepp’s research activities is tickling his lab rats. It turns out that rats laugh in response to being tickled, and they just can’t seem to get enough of it. What we’re able to learn from what happens in the brains of rats during and after a good laugh provides insights into the results and benefits that we derive from laughter. These include biochemical responses that appear to serve as natural anti-depressants and anxiety reducers.
However, when it comes time to apply for a grant to support laughter research, scientists are extra careful to make sure that they keep the “fun” out of funding. Northwestern University’s Jeffrey Burgdorf uses the term ‘positive emotional response’ in place of the word laughter in research study proposals to help ensure that he and his work are taken seriously.