Word-Of-the-Week #970: Giggles

March 9, 2023 by  

Giggleslaughing repeatedly in a more quiet but uncontrolled way. 

Do you remember the last time you got the giggles? Do you remember how it made you feel?

This week features excerpts from Washington Post writer Daryl Austin’s, Giggles Can Bring Gaggle Of Health Benefits.”

He writes, “My three young daughters like to watch pets doing silly things. Almost daily, they ask to see animal video clips on my phone and are quickly entertained. But once my 7-year-old lets out a belly laugh, the laughter floodgates are opened and her two sisters double over as well. 

This is just what science would predict. 

“Laughter is a social phenomenon,” says Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London who has studied laughter and other human reactions for more than two decades. Scott co-wrote a study showing how the brain responds to the sound of laughter by preparing one’s facial muscles to join in, laying the foundation for laughs to spread from person to person.

“Contagious laughter demonstrates affection and affiliation,” Scott says. “Even being in the presence of people you expect to be funny will prime laughter within you.” 

  • It’s like yawning 

Scientists have yet to definitively find a funny bone, but they are revealing nuances about the laugh impulse. Laughter’s positive psychological and physiological responses include lessening depression and anxiety symptoms, increasing feelings of relaxation, improving cardiovascular health, releasing endorphins that boost mood and even increasing tolerance for pain. 

Laughing has also been shown to lower stress levels. “Cortisol is a stress hormone that laughter lowers,” says Scott, adding that anticipation of laughter also “drops your adrenaline” and the body’s heightened fight-or-flight response. “All of these things contribute to you feeling better when you’ve been laughing,” she says.

Because humans are wired to mirror one another, laughs spread around a room just like yawns, says Lauri Nummenmaa, a brain researcher and professor at Aalto University School of Science in Finland whose work appears in a recent special issue on laughter in the journal Royal Society.

We simply copy the behavior and laughter of others,” Nummenmaa says. “Someone else’s act of laughing is first perceived when seen or heard, and this sensory information is then converted into the same area of the observers’ brain.” 

Studies also indicate that laughter can strengthen relationship connections. This happens, in part, because people naturally want to be around those who make them feel good the way laughing does. “We crave the company of the individuals who can give us such feelings,” Nummenmaa says. “Laughter is kind of a molecular building block of friendship.” 

Adds Scott: “You’re much more likely to catch a laugh from someone you know.” 

  • Laugh attacks 

You can, of course, laugh alone, but the contagious nature of laughter means we’re more likely to laugh harder and longer in groups, as at a comedy club or in a movie theater. 

Psychologist Robert Provine showed that “you’re 30 times more likely to laugh with other people than you are on your own,” Scott says. In his seminal book, “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation,” Provine wrote that the “contagious laugh response is immediate and involuntary, involving the most direct communication possible between people: brain to brain.” 

Although scientists have uncovered much about laughter’s health benefits and its contagious element, there remain many unknowns, including how contagious laughter is learned in the first place. 

“Babies aren’t born doing this,” Scott says. “All we know is that people do learn to laugh contagiously eventually, but we don’t know how or when exactly it begins.”

This week is about having some giggles. Have you ever been in a restaurant where a group of guests are having fun and laughing out loud? Did it make you giggle too? Or like me want to join their party? How many friends do you have that you have lots of giggles with?

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