Originally published in Reader’s Digest Asia
You probably laugh – or at least chuckle – at something you find amusing fairly often, but how much do you really know about laughter and humour? RD questioned six experts – a neuroscientist, two psychologists, a humour researcher, a sociologist, and a laughter yoga teacher – to give us the lowdown on laughter.
Reader’s Digest: What’s the oldest joke in the world?
We can’t know the oldest joke in the world because it would have existed prior to writing, as Christie Davies, professor of sociology at the University of Reading in the UK, points out. The oldest joke book that’s been found so far, the Greek Philogelos (“Laughter-Lover”) dates from the 4th century AD, although the jokes date from an earlier time. According to psychologist Steve Wilson, director of National Humor Month (April in the US), it contains 265 jokes, including this zinger: “‘A man goes to the barber. The barber asks how he would like his hair cut. The man replies, ‘Silently.’”
RD: Why are “funny” cat videos so much more popular than, say, dog videos?
The answer to this question may lie in what many people perceive as the inherent dark side in their feline friends. “There was one meme where a kitten looked into a camera, with the caption saying that it’s thinking about killing you,” recalls Scott Weems, cognitive neuroscientist and author. “It comes down to conflict; we’re not sure what to make of cats. On one hand, they’re terribly cute. On the other, they’re just a handful of generations from hunting you down on the African savannah. So, maybe they do think about murdering us all day. That, I contend, is funny.”
RD: Can animals laugh?
As it turns out, there’s a quite a bit of funny business going on in the animal kingdom. Not only do apes and dogs laugh, says Weems, but so do rats. And what do rats find so funny? Tickling! According to Weems, the best way to get a rat to laugh is to tickle it. “Just use your fingers to tickle the rat’s belly like you might with a baby,” he says.
RD: Do babies have a sense of humour?
Weems believes they have a rich sense of humour, albeit different from an adult’s. “Take peek-a-boo as an example. Babies love it. That’s because there’s an age when seeing something disappear is a little frightening. That jolt is followed by relief when we figure out that things remain there even if we don’t see them. That surprise and relief, to a baby at least, is a lot like a great stand-up routine for an adult. In that way, humour says a lot about the complexity of our thinking.” And according to Rod Martin, professor of psychology at the Western University in Ontario, Canada, that sense of humour starts developing as early as five months, right about when we begin to laugh.
RD: Do some children fail to develop a sense of humour to carry into adulthood?
Martin believes that while technically everyone is born without a sense of humour, as we develop cognitively and socially, humour and laughter begin to emerge spontaneously. “Of course, some children (like adults) tend to be more serious, quiet, and less likely to laugh frequently, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have an appreciation for humour.”
And according to Wilson, there’s no such thing as an adult without a sense of humour. “Almost everyone is capable of developing a sense of humour, and I teach people how,” he says. “Different aspects of our senses of humour come out depending on who we’re with. There’s a very strong social component to it.”
RD: What are the different types of senses of humour?
Martin finds it useful to look at the ways individuals use humour in their daily lives and what function it serves for them. “Some people enjoy laughing and joking with others and making others laugh,” he explains. “Others are more quiet and introspective, but still find a lot of amusement at the absurdities of daily life. Others use humour in aggressive ways, such as teasing, sarcasm, racial and sexist jokes, etc. For these people, humour seems to be a way of making themselves feel better at the expense of others.”