This week’s Honors Colloquium examined the psychology and science of laughter with Dr. Sophie Scott Tuesday evening, continuing this semester’s “Power of Humor” series.
Scott, professor of Cognitive Science at the University College London, has been studying the science of laughter for many years. The colloquium focused on the ways that humans use laughter as both a means of communication and an involuntary action that dates back to mankind’s early ancestors.
Scott asserts that laughter is the only form of positive communication that is universally understood and translates cross-culturally. She shifted her area of study and research towards laughter because of her interest in this phenomenon.
“I was looking at what people did around jokes,” Scott said. “It was only when I started looking more widely that laughter started to pull away from the other emotions we were looking at. It was the only positive emotion that was cross-culturally recognized. We started looking at it in more detail and realized it’s not just jokes; it’s got this whole world of social life.”
According to studies, laughter is not a behavior that exists only in humans; there are actually many other mammals that display signs of laughter or laughter-like behavior. Rats and many types of primates have been observed to laugh. It can be difficult to produce laughter from some mammals, yet studies have showed that tickling is nearly a universal method for inciting laughter.
Scott’s research has led her to believe that humans have two kinds of laughs: one is an involuntary, uncontrollable laugh, and the second is a social laugh which we consciously create. As humans, we laugh socially as a way of communication and of showing comfort with other people. Scott asserts that humans are 30 times more likely to laugh when they are with other people, rather than alone.
“We are trying to look at social laughter at the moment, because that is more likely to be at least possibly affected by culture,” Scott said. “Involuntary laughter just is; it is not shaped by the way that you grow up. But with social laughter, I suspect that it well could be. There certainly are big cultural differences. For example in the Philippines, it is not at all unusual if you give somebody exceptionally bad news for them to respond with laughter, in a way that’s quite shocking.”
Scott gave a TED Talk in March of this year where she presented a condensed version of the material that was covered in the colloquium.
“I generally give the same framework of a talk,” Scott said of her preparation methods. “If I was giving a talk to psychologists or neuroscientists, I would use the same slides I used at this colloquium. But what I will do is spend more time going over subjects that psychologists are more interested in. I think everybody does that when they’re planning a talk. You shape it to make it most interesting for the people who will be there.”
Scott’s work as a cognitive scientist has shaped the way that she processes laughter in her day-to-day life. She says that she now pays much more explicit attention to people’s laughs.
“It has made me understand a lot more about laughter, and in a way, I think it’s quite useful actually,” Scott said. “It’s genuinely engaging. It hasn’t thus far stopped me from laughing, and I hope that it doesn’t.”
The next Honor’s Colloquium, with guest speaker Laura Little, is entitled “Humor and the law.” The colloquium is set to take place on Nov. 3 in Edwards Auditorium at 7 p.m.