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Making Sense of Science

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A Few Good Laughs (video)
October 18, 2001

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"Laughter Protects the Heart" - BBC

Laughing Out Loud to Good Health - ThinkQuest

Laughter Club Internatinoal

"Laugh and the world laughs with you" is the old saying.

But scientists say laughter depends on who’s laughing with you, especially their gender.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, one scientist’s research is a laugh a minute.

Are humans the only species that laughs?

Michael J. Owren, acoustic primatologist and assistant professor in the psychology department at Cornell University, replies:

Whether humans are the only species that laugh or not can be a matter of opinion. The strongest claim that’s been made is that young chimpanzees produce a laugh-like sound when being tickled. And there are two questions to then ask in evaluating whether that qualifies as laughter in a significant sense. One is: Are the sounds themselves acoustically similar to laugh sounds? And the other is: Are they being used in a similar way that humans would use laugh sounds?

Acoustically, the sounds that young chimpanzees produce when being tickled are pants. It’s a series of inhalations and exhalations, whereas human laughter is based typically on exhalation, and when there is a series of laugh sounds, they are a series of exhaled sounds. So, acoustically the sounds are more directly comparable to panting sounds that both humans and a variety of other mammalian species might make.

The second question is whether they’re used in a similar context, being apparently predominantly observed during tickling. This represents a very narrow subset of the context in which humans use laughter. So humans use laughter in an apparent variety of contexts that include tickling, and include situations where the person is experiencing positive emotion, but can include a variety of other contexts.

So my opinion then, is that this makes the chimpanzee sounds significantly different from laughter on both accounts, both acoustically—because it’s a pant-like sound rather than specifically resembling human laughter—and because human laughter occurs ubiquitously in social interactions of all kinds among all age groups. In the chimpanzees, then, you don’t see this vocalization routinely occurring among animals interacting, or adult animals interacting. So the chimpanzee’s panting sound to me is perhaps most remarkable as a clue to the possible evolutionary origins of human laughter without being directly comparable to laughter in and of itself.

–interview by Jill Max

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