What can we learn from laughing?

This post was contributed by Aline Lorandi, a visiting postdoctoral researcher under the supervision of Prof Annette Karmiloff-Smith, investigating the precursors of phonological awareness in Down Syndrome. Aline attended Dr Caspar Addyman’s recent event during Birkbeck’s Science Week

LaughterLaughter is one of the most well-known characteristics of babies, although greatly ignored by science. Motivated by this intriguing gap in the study of babies, Dr Caspar Addyman (Research Fellow from the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, Birkbeck) decided to invest on the research on baby laughter.

Dr Addyman quotes Victor Borge when he says that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people”. As laughter is one of the central characteristics of babies and a way to connect people, Dr Addyman’s interest in this sort of study is more than justified.

Maternity and paternity brings several challenges: fewer hours of sleep, loads of mess to organise, lack of time for the parents themselves or to work, their lives changed forever – although most of them would say, for the better. One of the greatest rewards for all those challenges in parenting is, undoubtedly, to hear their babies laughing.

“Baby laugh is appealing!” states Dr Addyman. It is present from the very beginning of life, and, historically, it can be tracked to non-mammals more than six-million years ago. It encourages social play, and it is also linked to tickling, which is as old as laughter itself, phylogenetically speaking.

Some researches on rats (like Weaver et al., 2004, published on Nature Neuroscience) show that rats whose mothers lick and groom them were less stressed, for the mother’s touch may be an answer to stress. From this, Dr Addyman argues that touching and tickling are very important for development.

Ontogenetically speaking, Dr Addyman maintains that laughter begins really early. Through a survey with parents, he found out that at three months of life, in general, babies give their first laugh (the first smile is at one month). According to Dr Addyman, laughing is more difficult than crying, for it requires more motor and voice control. When looking for how many laughs per day a baby gives, the number can be bigger than 150. And, of course, a guaranteed way for a laugh is tickling.

As to fun games and toys, Dr Addyman found that ‘peek-a-boo’ seems to be the best one. It also provides social interaction, as you have to wait for the other person to appear, and there is pleasure in doing that.

Naturally, at some point, children will realise that they can make parents laugh, changing the games. By this, Dr Addyman shows us that laughter is about social learning, and ‘peek-a-boo’ is a condensed form of this kind of interaction.

There is another important feature about laughing that distinguishes it from crying – it makes it a way for communication: While crying is a sign that something is wrong and must be stopped by parents, laughing points to something that they want to be continued.

As an argument for the social role of laughing, Dr Addyman presented research where he shows that children laugh more when in a group than alone, independently of how funny they think a movie is. Another experiment shows that laughter captures and holds attention from babies, and it is more ‘contagious’ than yawning!

Dr Addyman believes that we can learn from babies’ laughter. He says that we should challenge ourselves to be happy; for people who challenge themselves see more purpose in life. He also believes that we should do things with joy, be 100% in it, share with other people and simply be happy!

As Abraham Lincoln once said: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be”. If this is correct, and babies can show us that it is, as Dr Addyman’s research points out, the answer to happiness is not ‘how to be happy’, but ‘how to change our minds’, remembering ourselves of the pleasures of tickling and laughing, as if we were still babies, and of the rewards of living a less stressful life, through the happiness of laughing out loud.

Find out more


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.