Finding the truth behind funny

Originally published on April 12th, 2019 for

When Robert Provine first decided to study laughter a little more than two decades ago, he developed a very simple protocol: He would invite people into the lab, present them with videos of the best comedy sketches available, and record their laughter. It didn’t work.

Rather than observing fits of uncontrolled laughter, Provine and his colleagues found people laughed a little politely, if at all. Truth be told, the best laughs usually have nothing to do with great jokes.

“It’s all automatic,” said Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “We don’t decide to laugh, it just happens. It’s one person’s brain communicating directly with another human’s brain.”

Provine, finds this phenomenon, called automaticity, “most striking when we laugh contagiously to the sound of another’s laugh, the basis of television laugh tracks.”

Without question, we can find ourselves cracking up, all by ourselves, at a truly funny sketch from a favorite late-night comedy show or viral video. But, Provine found we are 30 times more likely to laugh around others than by ourselves. And he did so not by bringing folks into the laboratory, but by observing laughter in its natural habitat, an approach Provine calls “Sidewalk Neuroscience.”

“Like Jane Goodall went to Gombe Stream reserve to study chimpanzees,” Provine said he spent his time in the field, quietly jotting down notes anytime someone laughed. “I found myself going to the student union, city sidewalks, and suburban shopping malls looking at humans in their natural setting, getting the collection of laughter to be analyzed.”

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