At a dinner party I recently attended, the hosts commented on having seen the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral during their vacation cruise. Several of us immediately began waxing eloquent about the film’s delightful humor. Whereupon our hosts concluded their assessment, which we had interrupted in our enthusiasm: they’d been bored stiff.

A sense of humor is something that is both common to all of us and unique to each of us. (Usually when we say someone “doesn’t have a sense of humor,” what we really mean is that they don’t share our sense of humor. I’ve been accused of being humorless myself by people who considered disabling my car by pulling off the distributor cap the height of comedy. I, on the other hand, would find the boiling in oil of such practical jokers a cause for serious guffawing.) Why some people find some things funny and others unfunny depends mostly on their personal backgrounds. The fact that we find things funny at all, however, is hard-wired into our brains.

Laughter is exhibited only by a handful of species: ourselves and, apparently, some of our closest relatives, such as chimpanzees, gorillas and possibly orangutans, who appear to laugh when tickled or when playing chasing games. Some people swear that their dog or cat laughs (dogs laugh with you, cats laugh at you), but if so, it’s silent laughter; they don’t make a sound–and that’s what laughter is, a specific kind of sound we emit in specific situations.

Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, conducted a survey of the circumstances under which people laugh, by eavesdropping on 1,200 conversations. He found that in the majority of cases, laughter and humor don’t actually occur together. Laughs tended to be sprinkled throughout speeches, with 80 percent coming not from the listeners, but from speakers. And in most cases, the laughter came before the purportedly funny phrase.

Provine theorizes that laughter is a “universal word,” one we all understand whatever language we speak. It highlights something that’s just been said or is about to be said, and by laughing in return, the listener rewards the speaker and encourages him to go on.

Provine also found that laughter sounds the same regardless of the age, race, sex or accent. It consists of individual notes: “ha,” “ho,” and “hee.” Unlike other parts of speech, laughter sounds the same backwards as forwards, an indication of how tightly it’s programmed into our nervous system.

Provine did some other research on who does the most laughing, and discovered that it’s basically dependent on sex. In mixed-sex social situations, men tend to dominate conversation. Similarly, most laughs were elicited from listeners when men were talking and women were listening; the least amount of laughter took place when men were listening to women. Same-sex conversations fell somewhere in between. Provine believes this is because women are better listeners and make more of an effort to encourage their conversational partners to keep talking. (Most men would prefer to believe it’s because they’re incredibly witty…a notion most women would find far funnier than anything they’ve heard a man say recently, I’m sure.)

Another aspect of laughter that everyone is familiar with is that it’s contagious. Provine feels this is because laughter enhances social bonding. After an evening of laughing themselves silly, an audience leaves the theatre sharing a sense of camaraderie. That social bonding is even more important among friends or family.

Another indication that laughter’s primary purpose is enhancing communication is the fact that people at home alone are six times less likely to smile, four times less likely to speak, and 30 times less likely to laugh than when they are out with other people. Provine also found that the period of time in which people are least likely to laugh is the hour immediately following waking up (gee, big surprise).

Laughter may have physiological as well as psychological benefits. A study of brain activity during the hearing of a joke showed that it enhances cooperation between the left and right hemispheres. Laughter also decreases the levels of the neurotransmitter epinephrine, which in turn can reduce high blood pressure and relieve other cardiovascular problems, and the stress hormone cortisol, which allows the immune system to produce greater numbers of white blood cells and otherwise function better.

In fact, just the anticipation of laughter had a positive effect on the test subjects. So even when you’re sitting in the theatre waiting for a funny movie to start, you’re experiencing health benefits (provided you’re not chowing down on popcorn and candy bars).

Personally, I’d recommend Four Weddings and a Funeral.

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