We are 30 times more likely to laugh if there is someone else with us than when we are on our own Image Credit: iStockphoto

The American writer E.B. White famously said, “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” But is the same true of analysing laughter?

I am a brain scientist who studies laughter, and I find it quite interesting, not least because scientific analyses tell us that pretty much everything we humans think we know about laughter is wrong. We think laughter is primarily something we do when we find something funny, but in fact most laughter is produced for social reasons — we are 30 times more likely to laugh if there is someone else with us than when we are on our own. We all laugh much more often than we think we do — studies find an average of seven laughs per 10 minutes of conversation between strangers, and an average 10 per cent of a conversation between friends.

We think we are the only animals that laugh, but laughter has been described in other apes, parrots and even rats.

So if laughter is a social behaviour, what does that mean for comedy? There is ongoing scientific debate about how humour works, but I am specifically interested in how stand-up comedy works: For example, if most laughter happens in conversation, is stand-up comedy like a really, really weird conversation where only one person gets to do the talking, and the other people in the conversation get to laugh, or clap, or groan? And how do comedians manage this interaction — how do they let the audience know it’s OK to laugh?

Stand-up comedy is a relatively new art form, and it wasn’t unusual for earlier performers such as Henny Youngman to use “rimshots” (“Take my wife — please! Badum tss!”) to punctuate punchlines. Rimshots are now considered a hallmark of bad comedy, but it is essential that a comic stops talking when they get to a punchline for the simple reason that if they do not, the audience may not laugh, or will stop laughing quickly as they want to hear what is being said.

Highly contagious

I have done a bit of stand up, and trust me, stopping talking to let laughter happen is very hard to learn to do. What if no one laughs? And what do you do with your face while you wait to find out? And that matters, as laughter is highly contagious: A lot of the laughter you produce is solely happening because someone else is laughing and you catch the laughter from them. Research with audience applause has shown that people are likely to clap if they are near someone else who starts clapping. Is the same true of laughter in audiences? How does the laughter work when the laughter points or punchlines are visual rather than verbal?

Going back to E.B. White’s frog dissection analogy, my personal experience of analysing laughter is that, if anything, I enjoy laughter even more because I pay attention to it. Maybe scientifically analysing laughter is less like frog dissection and more akin to finding out that frogs have fascinating psychological lives — did you know that tadpoles will not only look at themselves in a mirror, but will preferentially look at themselves with their left eye? — and that everyone (frogs included) enjoys hearing about them.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Sophie Scott is a senior fellow at University College London and an expert in cognitive neuroscience, particularly in relation to communications.