Ever wondered just what is laughter?

Why does anyone laugh?

Laughter and its cognitive companion, humor, are universal traits present in all cultures. Some apes are even known to “laugh” when tickled or when they see one of their own slip on a banana peel (

Laughter and its cognitive companion, humor, are universal traits present in all cultures. Some apes are even known to “laugh” when tickled or when they see one of their own slip on a banana peel (Nah, not really on the last part.)

LOL: What is Laughter?In his book The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human, V.S. Ramachandran explains laughter as nature’s “all’s OK” signal.  He uses the example of someone slipping and falling on a banana peel no less.  If they are hurt and cry out in pain and start bleeding all over the place, you don’t laugh.  You call an ambulance. However, if they get up unhurt and wipe the banana off of their pants, you break out in giggles.  In the first case, the situation is a crisis requiring immediate action.  In the second case, it’s a false alarm. By laughing, you inform the others nearby that there is no emergency and they can relax.

The same type of response is taking place when someone laughs when they are tickled.  The person being tickled is the “prey.”  The person doing the tickling is the “predator.” Some instinctual part of the brain, the inner primate ready to escape, cannot help but reflexively, physically interpret the situation this way.  However, when the predator turns out to pose no danger, they laugh.  All is OK.  It’s for this reason that you can’t tickle yourself.  You know it’s you, and your brain never interprets any threat. ( I bet you just tested this by trying to tickle  yourself, didn’t you?)

2316083153_2f50805b07_qInterestingly enough, the universal greeting gesture in humans, the smile, has similar and not so friendly origins.  When an ape is approached by another ape, the default assumption is that it is meeting a potentially dangerous stranger.  The animal signals a readiness to fight and makes itself look more imposing by displaying canine teeth in a grimace.

This evolved further and became a kind of warning.  When the approaching ape is recognized as not being any danger, the threat expression is aborted half way.  Hence, partly showing the canines became an expression of friendliness, the smile.  Once again, a potential threat or alarm has been deflated and laughter may follow.  Hence, a smile and laughter feel almost the same, incorporate the same logic, and are believed to use the same neural network.


  1. Ande Waggener Reply

    Very interesting, Debbie. I’ve never thought about laughter that way–that it’s a sign for it’s okay. It makes sense. It also explains why finding reasons to laugh can have such a healing effect on us. It tells our cells that we’re okay and our cells respond. 🙂

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      I find these kind of little tidbits incredibly interesting as it explains something reflexive that we never really think of. It does make sense that smiling would telling the body that there is no alarm would be accompanied by the corresponding calming, feel good chemicals in the brain.

      Now, come clean. Did you tickle yourself or bare your teeth? I can’t read it without doing my teeth!

  2. Hey Debbie. Facinating. So a nervous laugh is a primitively triggered response to fear. And the times you laugh when the boss laughs even if you don’t find it funny. But I guess both signal an intention or desire to change mood or eliminate a threat. Take care, Stephen

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Stephen, great point. I would think we do engage in laughter a lot when an “alpha” laughs to signal cooperation and to diffuse any tension. It will be interesting to become aware of this. I know I will think about smiling a little differently from now on.

  3. This explains so much, Debbie! It’s a natural reflex to laugh at times and we don’t need to feel bad about it. Your articles are so fascinating. I enjoy them so much. Thank you.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      The brain is so fascinating to me, that I never run out of interesting stuff to write about. In my humble opinion. I’ll read something and be all excited to write a blog about it. At least, I entertain myself and make myself happy! 🙂 That’s what it is all about. Glad you find them interesting too.

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