For Scienceline, William Herkewitz explores the evolutionary history of laughter, a story that shows us that maybe we’re not quite so unique as we’d like to think. It’s not just that we laugh at funny things. The roots of this behavior, scientists think, go back much further and actually play an important purpose.
Herkewitz finds that various theories abound, but that the current “best guess” says that humans laugh to tell other humans not to get too fussed over something that could otherwise be regarded as scary or dangerous.
If you’re an ancestral human, says Ramachandran, and you come across what you think is a dangerous snake but actually turns out to be a stick, you’re relieved and you laugh. “By laughing, you’re communicating: ‘All is OK,’” says Ramachandran.
Ramachandran believes the “false alarm” signaling purpose of laugher explains its loud sound and explosive quality. If you want to signal something to a larger social group, they better hear it. His theory also helps explain the contagiousness of laughter — a curious quality exploited by the laugh tracks of TV sitcoms. Strangely enough, hearing the sound of laughter, on its own, is enough to elicit more laughter in others. “A signal is much more valuable if it amplifies and spreads like wildfire in the group,” says Ramachandran.
People also laugh to show pleasure, to bond with other members of the group. And in this regard, humans’ laughter isn’t special.