In 1962, a rare and bizarre epidemic was spawned by a group of Tanzanian schoolgirls. This epidemic involved no blood, air-borne germs, or dirty door handles – only irrepressible, contagious, gut-shaking, hysterical fits of laughter.
Tanzania’s Happy Outbreak
What started as an isolated case of giggles among BFFs bloomed into a wave of laughter that enveloped the entire school. Ninety-five out of 159 students broke into peals of helpless laughter, effectively shutting down the school. School re-opened a few days later, only to be interrupted again by 57 more cases of mystery guffawing.
Over the following weeks, the laughing epidemic spread to over 200 villagers (infected students brought the laughter home). More schools were closed due to the students’ uncontrollable glee. Soon, over 1,000 people had been hit with the laughing bug, from Tanzania to neighboring Uganda.
Laughter Reports from the Field
This historic event still has scientists scratching their heads, including Robert Provine, who studies laughter.
As part of his research, Provine and his team spent 8 years collecting and listening to clips of people’s joy. Samples from the field – from shopping malls, classrooms, offices, and cocktail parties – reveal important facts about human laughter.
Dr. Robert Provine via The Atlantic
For one, people laugh not mainly because something is funny. In fact, laughing in response to a joke or to humor happens less than 20% of the time.
So if it’s not so hilarious, why are we chuckling?
Now This is Really Gonna Make You laugh
It turns out that laughter is more often a form of communication. We use it to build camaraderie and positive feelings. We laugh to dispel awkwardness or just to be polite. We laugh strategically, with set patterns. Instead of randomly peppering our conversation with tee hee’s, we use laughter like punctuation. As in, “Hi, I’m Canadian (polite chuckle).”
In dialog, the person speaking usually laughs more than the one listening. And women laugh more than men – about 127% more. But men are funnier. Because both men and women laugh more when listening to a man. It’s a pattern that starts in childhood. From the age of six, females are better laughers while males are better instigators of laughter.
As for the laughing champions? Children. Kids burst out 400 chuckles a day, whereas adults eke out a mere 15.
Neurologically, laughter is activated from the deep inner section of our brain, the cerebral subcortex. It’s the same area from which basic reflexes like breathing originate, that is, away from the areas for higher functions like language and memory.
That’s why laughing feels instinctual, and laughter can be very hard to suppress, even when you know you shouldn’t laugh out loud. Deaf people laugh too, without ever having heard a laugh, further proving that laughter is a basic part of our biology.
Laughter is so natural and beneficial that it’s even used as therapy. Laughter therapy improves health, mood, and social skills through fun and humor. If that sounds awesome, check out laughter yoga, started by Mumbai’s Dr. Madan Katarina, who is now gleefully running over 5,000 clubs worldwide.
5,000 clubs is not quite a world epidemic, but it’s getting there.
“Laughter Therapy.” The Guardian. Sunday 6 July 2008
Provine, Robert R. “Laughter.” American Scientist. Jan-Feb, 1996.
Stafford, Tom. “What Makes Us Laugh?” BBC. June 5, 2012.
Scott, Sophie. “Why We Laugh.” TED.com Retrieved September 7, 2015.
Wolfe, Alexandra. “Sophie Scott and the Science of Laughter.” The Guardian. May 15, 2015.