Friday, 15 April 2011

Why do we laugh?

Most discussions I hear or read on the question of why we laugh tend to treat it as a quasi-mystical issue. The argument goes, more or less, that since it's one of those things that distinguish us from animals, like our sensitivity to music, then it must be something profoundly spiritual, deep and hard to fathom. I'm probably not well versed enough on the subject, but it doesn't seem like such a complex question to me. I also don't understand why you don't find an explanation of why we laugh in so-called common knowledge, like GCSE Biology textbooks. Maybe my own understanding of this subject is wrong? Am I missing something?

Anyway, I'm going to throw down some thoughts which I'd ruminated upon quite the while ago, but never committed them to writing – the issue seemed too obvious for this to seem necessary! But since I haven't found a lucid and basic explanation elsewhere (mostly the question seems to be discussed in psychoanalitical essays which are far more complex than I feel they should be), I'll just write this all down, because otherwise I'll just forget, and then what's the point of having thought of it at all? I don't expect I'll be saying anything particularly original, but it may make for a differently interesting read from the usual cultural criticism.

So then – why do we laugh?

Most of the sounds, gestures or smells produced by the human organisms (excluding, therefore, external agents like the sound of an object impacting with someone's body or an odour resulting from contact with a foreign substance) are social signals. Like the howl of wolves or the singing of birds, their purpose is to indicate something to the group we live in. If infants cry, for instance, it usually serves to call for help from their mothers. Unsurprisingly, we tend to cry much less when we grow up – and women, who are less capable of physically defending themselves and therefore more likely to require protection, cry more easily than men in most cases.

Laughter is, similarly, a useful social signal. Its purpose is that of defining and consolidating social hierarchies. It may seem a somewhat redundant or bizarre behavioural trait, to produce these loud cries convulsively, but then we must consider that homo sapiens is among the most complex of social animals, and the (evolutionary?) mechanisms required to sustain its societies are correspondingly very complex – or at least, more subtle than those of other social animals.

Ants, termites, bees and other social insects, for instance, determine their hierarchies genetically. Once a drone is born, it will stay a drone all its life. It will never behave like any other thing (potentially, circumstances can lead an ant to change caste, perhaps to substitute a dying queen, but again the event is highly scripted and predetermined, and can be reproduced with different hives in fairly simple laboratory conditions). Human societies are less predictable. What an individual will become within a group, and what his/her social use/contribution will be, depends on a very sophisticated combination of variables, many of which are determined by the conditions in which s/he grows up. The process of mating exemplifies the differences as well. Termites reproduce according to scripted and mechanical processes. A hive's reproductive history is, to my knowledge, pretty much the same for any given one, with variations only in the rate of success (which is determined by the resources available, not by the 'personality' of the termites mating). When it comes to humans, predicting who we're going to fall in love with, why and when, or how any given relationship is going to go, is a task so unearthly that the subject is ubiquitously treated with even more mysticism than laughter.

There's always got to be one...

In explaining the phenomenon, it will be remarked that you never laugh about 'good' things. If you laugh, it always means that something has gone 'wrong.' Among the simplest funny things is the sight of someone tripping, slipping, or otherwise falling down while in the middle of normal activities. Often seeing people getting hurt is funny, provided they don't get too hurt (in which case other mechanisms kick in and we become worried for the person in question). Even seemingly innocuous jokes with language, like puns or double entendres, make us laugh only inasmuch as they represent an *error.* Even though no-one gets hurt, there's been a failure of some type (specifically, communication), and we laugh at this failure. The greater the failure, the funnier the situation – a respected professor's blooper is funnier the more embarrassing it is and the richer its unintended suggestions are, and this is the principle of irony. I'll say more on this and other specific types of humour later, but in the meantime, I'll point out that this is what led Robert Heinlein, in his milestone novel Stranger in a Strange Land, to conclude that laughter exists to suppress pain. We laugh at painful things because otherwise there would be just too much pain to deal with. This interesting argument made me think a lot when I was a kid.

The mechanism of empathy, it can be agreed, has developed in homo sapiens because it makes societies work better. If we feel bad at the sight of other people feeling bad, and we want to prevent them from feeling that way, then of course it's going to foster cooperation, and a group that cooperates has far greater chances of survival than one internally broken. So empathy makes perfect evolutionary sense for social animals. Laughter is, I think, the opposite of empathy. It leads us, at least to a certain extent, to enjoy the ill-fortune of others. Why would this be useful from a social/evolutionary point of view?

Laughter always implies other people. As Freud famously stated, you never laugh alone. Now we can agree that other people laughing *with* you is one of the best things in life, while other people laughing *at* you is one of the least desirable. Try picturing what this means in a social group. If two males engage in a conflict which will have consequences in terms of the leadership of the group, people will laugh at whoever they do not recognise as legitimate leader. They will laugh WITH their 'candidate' of choice, and AT his adversary. So it's almost a natural expression of democratic vote. Chances are, the laughter may be so effective at outlining the social situation that physical conflict may even be averted. But laughter does more than that. It also consolidates alliances. Three women who dislike a man will laugh at the latter's back. In this way, even without any hostility being openly expressed, or even formulated, the three individuals will have silently (or, well, not so silently) defined themselves as allies. They don't need to SAY to each other, 'Let us be allies against that man.' That would expose the one who proposes this idea to considerable danger: if the others don't agree, she's in trouble, because she has defined herself as the 'traitor' figure. But laughter will arise spontaneously among three people who agree, with no need of being publically defined and, as importantly, with almost no need of anyone taking the dangerous 'first step,' because laughter escalates simultaneously and reciprocally (as we know, laughter is contagious), and all it takes to 'begin' is an innocent and non-committing smile. The alliance will hold, at least until other laughter comes to dispel, modify or redirect it.

So it seems quite straightforward to me that laughter isn't a mystical mysterious thing, at least not in terms of the knowledge we have today. In a species which isn't as predictable in the behaviour of its members as ants or bees, it's a fundamental signal for people to understand where each other stands. The fact that it has evolved in homo sapiens is logical. Without laughter, social processes would be much more complicated, and far more verbal communication would be required, which is less effective (and more dangerous) at this type of social game than laughter.

Obviously, I'm not proposing a purely utilitarian/materialistic understanding of laughter. It is precisely humanity's unpredictability that allows laughter to transcend its original function. While it still helps social dynamics, like allowing friendships to coalesce more quickly, or in the process of seducing a partner, it's now understood to be mainly recreational. Similarly, even though the purpose of sex is reproduction, people make love nowadays at least just as much for the sheer enjoyment of it, and only a minority of our sexual partners will actually bear or rear our children. This distortion of the original evolutionary purpose means that we experience laughter in ways and occasions which do not always have a social purpose. If we sit on a chair and watch a funny video on Youtube, we laugh on our own, which defeats the biological point. Furthermore, laughing at dramatic representations (i.e. comedies) has a certain function of gelling people together, but mostly it too is abortive, because there's no-one being laughed at. We're laughing at a screen. How then is our 'vote' expressed by laughter any relevant, when there aren't even any candidates?

Actually, the figure of the comedian may seem a bit puzzling, in light of the arguments I proposed. Given the humiliating power of laughter, wouldn't anyone's priority be to *avoid* being laughed at, in whichever way possible? Isn't a professional comedian an absurdity, then, since s/he seeks to be laughed at as much and as long as possible, and indeed feels gratified when s/he succeeds in this task? (There's a lot of pronouns coming up and I don't want to repeat him/her and s/he at every line, so I'll just use the masculine for the next paragraph...).

But there is no puzzle here. As I mentioned, in comedies there's no-one being laughed at. What we laugh at is not the comedian himself as an individual, but at the representation he is projecting. A comedian *simulates* an accident; he pretends to fall down or get hurt. If it really were an accident, that person wouldn't be a comedian, because you can't professionally have accidents – it's a total contradiction in terms! (The Jackass show aims to contradict my statement, but though they obviously play on the principles we discussed – of pain/injury to others as funny – their skits are still scripted and controlled, and therefore aren't accidents. It would be an accident, with them, if they did NOT get hurt – and yes, that would be funny too, seeing them botching up a sketch and all of them coming out unscathed). And so a comedian is never being laughed at himself, but people are laughing *with* him at his representation. He is essentially presenting something and saying “Look, this is really funny.” And if they agree with him, of course they would feel gratified – they are, in a primordial sense, telling him that they want him as their leader, or at least that they are his allies.

I hope I've put up a decent argument as to the functions and purposes of laughter. The question that follows naturally from this discussion is that of comedy. Given why we laugh, *what* do we laugh at? Which events are funny and which are not, and why? Are there different types of laughter, and if so, what categories do they fall under? Is there an ethical distinction to be made in laughter, that is to say, are there good and bad types or ways of laughing, and if so, what are they?

To all of these questions my next blog-post is going to be dedicated. It normally takes me a few days to conclude a two-part text, but this time the subject is difficult and it will require patience (besides, I'm back to working on the ship and I'm so busy I could die!). At least a week, then, but probably longer than that, and we'll have a post on The Question of Comedy.

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