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Why we laugh. Cartoonist Nick Newman takes part in a scientific experiment into the funny side of things

Blog | Jun 26, 2023


Laughter’s a funny thing.

Who hasn’t had to stifle a giggle at a funeral – and stared blankly at a legendary comedian like Charlie Chaplin?

When Spike Milligan was being shelled at Monte Cassino in 1944, he saw a sign written in chalk on a stone with an arrow pointing to ‘World War II – this way’.

The bleakest of situations can be defused with the blackest of jokes. As Mark Twain noted, ‘The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.’

To understand why we laugh and what we laugh at, I recently took part in an experiment at London’s Cartoon Museum. The Laughter Lab research project was conducted by Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Oxford University.

His experiment asked visitors to choose preferences in an exhibition of 19 paired sets of cartoons, some with captions, others without. The gags varied thematically from relationship jokes to political cartoons.

Some 4,500 people took part in the project – psychology experiments usually run to a few hundred participants – and the results were surprising. Unlike with aural humour, the more complicated the cartoon, the funnier the joke.

Sense of humour also changes with age. People generally prefer political jokes to social jokes, but as you get older, your preference changes – political cartoons become less appealing. Says Dunbar, ‘You’ve seen it all before – it’s no longer amusing.’

An examination of verbal versus visual cartoons saw a gender divide. Men prefer visual cartoons and switch to verbal as they get older. Women prefer verbal cartoons and veer towards visual gags as they age.

A similar gender split became apparent in the type of joke preferred. Men prefer ‘situational’ (slapstick) cartoons, whereas women like political jokes more than men. The only category on which the sexes agreed – and preferred by far – was ‘domestic dynamics’ (relationships). Professor Dunbar concludes, ‘Women are able to read social context in much greater depth than men – men are rather shallow.’

Dunbar’s primary interest is in social evolution and the mechanisms underpinning social bonding.

His physiological research shows that laughter is good for you. Laughter triggers the release of chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Endorphins are feelgood opioids. Primates release endorphins through grooming – stroking and hugging – but this intimate form of bonding precludes bonding with big groups.

That’s where laughter comes in – allowing communal bonding without intimate contact. Through evolution, that bonding has expanded to include singing, dancing, the rituals of religion, eating together and drinking alcohol (some might say alcoholics are addicted to endorphins, not alcohol).

Tragedy, like comedy, triggers the endorphin system. Endorphins also help manage your pain threshold – so laughter really is the best medicine.

Professor Sophie Scott is Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL – and has a sideline as a stand-up comedienne – so knows how jokes work. She was a member of the panel I sat on with Guardian cartoonist Rebecca Hendin, discussing the Laughter Lab’s findings.

‘There are theories about humour: laughter is because you feel superior to someone else – but then why are puns funny?’ says Scott. She believes that the fewer barriers there are to understanding humour, the funnier it is. So the wordless comedy of slapstick translates universally – like Mr Bean.

Cartoons are often just verbal jokes in two dimensions – and, likewise, the most satisfying cartoons are captionless.

If humour science proves anything, it’s that no one thing is funny for everybody. Scott says that, even with slapstick, ‘There’s always somebody saying, “That’s not funny – my brother died that way.” ’

Closing the discussion, Laughter Lab curator Emma Stirling-Middleton asked, ‘What is the purpose of humour?’

Dunbar’s succinct reply was ‘I have no idea’ – but he added, ‘Laughter is such an old and important feature of our social interactions. When it started, two million years or so ago, it was just a form of chorusing, sitting around a campfire, effectively singing. And a response to slapstick – somebody falling over.’

This developed into a way of controlling what was humorous – in other words, telling jokes. Otherwise, you had to wait for someone to slip on a banana skin before releasing those endorphins.

Scott points out that laughter in other apes involves physicality, and while tickling makes baby apes laugh just as it does baby humans, some things make humans laugh but not apes – such as a game of ‘peek-a-boo’. For humans, laughter can happen at a distance.

Laughter is also contagious. There are examples of contagious behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. Turtles yawn contagiously; orang-utans scratch contagiously. But there are no examples of contagious laughing – other than in humans. As Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote, ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you’.

Laughter is an essential and unique component of human communication, but I hoped the experiment would yield some sort of formula for what makes a funny joke – like The Day Today’s brilliant equation ‘Events x Importance = News’.

Sadly, no such theorem was forthcoming. Ultimately, the only humour equation that matters is Cartoon = Cheque = Booze.

Nick Newman works for Private Eye and does cartoons for the Sunday Times