Milk from the Nose: The Reasons for Laughter
Written by Kacper Niburski
If there is one way to destroy humour, it’s to analyze it. Like a pig on a dissection table, to see the inside of the animal is to necessarily kill it. Sure – technical skill can be gleaned and the art can be appreciated, but that doesn’t remove the smell of formaldehyde lingering in the room. Weighing the words, observing the connectivity of the sentences, and determining the subtext that caused the harrumphs and chuckles is to ruin the limbo of suspended disbelief where a comedian works within. Even the heaviest of critical comedic commentary is no different than grinding up a beautiful jewel and running it through a spectrometer to see why it is a certain shade of unique colour.
Yet the same need not be said of laughter. In fact, to figure out why we laugh is to complement why things are funny in the first place. Laughter, at its most base root, is not a function of humour but rather a psychological, emotional, and social undertaking shared by all of humanity.
The reasons for laughter underlie its psychological benefits. The proverbial grin reduces tension, depression, anger, lowers blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, increases oxygen uptake, and reduces the induced levels of stress in a person. With its whole salubrious-assault on the body, every part of the body is nearly involved in a laugh . Fingers clench. Diaphragms rise. Eyes dilate. And a cluster of chemicals and cell-based responses – endorphins that stimulate the sympathetic endocrine system, T and B cells that elicit an immune response, cortisol that is responsible for stress equilibrium – are either increased or decreased after a lame knock-knock joke or a black comedy that is so grim that we can’t help but let out a howl.
Gelotologists, the fitting name for accredited laughter doctors, point to these physiological effects as indicators of good health. Like the adages say: he who laughs lasts, a smile a day keeps the doctor away, and laughter is the best medicine (except if you have typhoid fever, maybe then you should stick to antibiotics).
Yet such bodily beneficence is not laughter’s sole function. Laughter transcends boundaries. It moves associated communication and comprehension beyond the verbal realm and into a shared emotional, bonding experience. Unlike the languages of the world, there is no requirement to learn it. Laughter’s innate – babies as young as four months, even those with some form of physical handicap such as blindness or deafness, can laugh in between the sputtering of gurgles and grunts, groans and grumbles.
In this way, laughter serves as a universal human vocabulary, a broader way to minimize social gaps, class differences and age superiority between people. Just go into a bar in a foreign country and you’ll find the proof.
Part of this universality is due to its evolutionary function. While gelotologists (still hilarious) are not in complete agreement regarding the mechanism by which it originated, they note that laughter is uniquely human. Unlike the troves of animals that have been selected for at different times for different reasons, to laugh is to be human and only human. Even the closest phylogenic ancestors such as gorillas or chimps do not snicker or cuffaw when in social conditions such as playing or tickling as humans do; instead they produce a variety of shrill sounds and soft mumbles that are incomparable to human hysterics.
Why then do humans laugh? Due to the physiological underpinning of laughter, whether it be the increased immune response or the heightened endorphin hormone levels, humour and the giggles that come from it serve as a way to signal to others that a unique situation is at the very least harmless; at best, enjoyable.
As creatures of habit, we look for patterns. Whether speech, movement or just driving a car down the road, we force ourselves into a cycle that is comfortable and complacent. It is safe that way. Laughter and humour alike, on the other hand, seeks to disrupt this rhythm of everyday. Humour presents a novel scenario that contests the day-in and day-out of daily life, and we find ourselves gripping our side as a result.
This is why people can laugh during an event as solemn as a funeral, and more importantly why jokes are no longer funny during their umpteenth explanation. The rhythmic cacophony of an epiglottis constricting onto the larynx is a nonverbal indication that everything is all right and if not, then it can be in time. Even Stanley Milgram, the famous psychologist who performed experiments to see how people obeyed an authority figure even when it conflicted with their conscience, noticed that nervous laughter accompanied many of the test subjects when they thought they were shocking unseen experimenters and that these harrowing snickers compounded as the cries of pain wore on.
Laughter, then, is not just a simple by-product of a joke but instead a communication beyond the noise. Tooting the chuckle horn suggests an understanding of sense in a senseless world, a scared hope that in disorder, everything will be set right in time even if it may not be. A punch line catches us off guard and we laugh. A person uses dark comedy to combat the reality of losing a limb by saying he was left-handed anyways.
In all instances, laughter is a deep comprehension that becomes just intolerable enough in the moment of release. We understand in the explosion of organized chaos that the world is tragic, that we may be helpless in a insignificant Universe, that the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side, that sometimes a banana knocks on a door anachronistically, and thus we too explode, even if it’s during breakfast, in the form of milk shooting out of our nose.
Picture from Calvin and Hobbes,
Calvin and Hobbes laughing. Copyright of Bill Watterson.
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