Robert Provine, psychology research professor and professor emeritus, recently joined WBUR Radio’s Here and Now to explain why people laugh, a human behavior that is largely misunderstood and is something that people do involuntarily.
During the program, Provine, a neuroscientist and author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond, explained that laughter is not something that can be done simply on command, similar to crying.
“When we explain why we laugh, we’re assuming this voluntary control, and it’s not there. Another surprise is that laughter is presumed to be somehow related to humor, and yet only 10, 15 percent of comments preceding laughter are anything that’s remotely joke-like.”
Provine went on to explain the causes of laughter, which often come from sources that may be a surprise to many people.
“The source of laughter are other people, not jokes. For example, most laughter follows comments like, ‘Hey, where have you been!’ It’s not someone telling a joke. This is a conclusion that’s easy to test — the next time you’re around friends and there’s a lot of laughter, people are not telling jokes at a furious rate, they’re just laughing. Also, the presumption that laughter’s the decision to speak ‘ha ha’ can be easily disproven by asking someone to laugh.”
Provine studies the development and evolution of the nervous system and behavior, including human social behavior. His books are frequently cited in the media, and his research and writing have received significant national and international media coverage in outlets like NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Radio Lab, CBS 20/20, CBS Sunday Morning, Scientific American Frontiers, ABC World News Tonight, Good Morning America, The New York Times, Time, Discover, Scientific American, Nature, New Scientist, and The Times (London).
Listen to the full segment “One neuroscientist explains the science of laughter” on WBUR.
Header image: UMBC students on campus. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.