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Undergraduate sees laughter’s serious side

By : By Ryan Yarosh

Matt Gervais is unavoidably attuned to laughter. “I sometimes hear my own laughter and have to ask myself, ‘Why?’ That wasn’t even funny,” he said.

At a recent social gathering, rather than mingle and interact with fellow guests, Gervais couldn’t help but eavesdrop and analyze the context of the laughter around him. “I hear laughter and my mind goes, ‘boink,’” he said. “I have an appreciation for how ‘fake’ laughter can smooth interactions, open people up, maybe even facilitate real laughter.”

Gervais, 22, a senior pursuing a psychobiology/philosophy double major with a minor in anthropology, became interested in laughter while searching for a term paper topic for David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution and Human Behavior class. What started on a whim has evolved into a 2˝-year scholarly study, recently published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, a peer-reviewed journal based at the University of Chicago.

Wilson, who initiated and directs the Evolutionary Studies Program, played an advisory role during Gervais’ research. “Laughter seems like a superficial subject but Matt’s synthesis shows that it played a fundamental role in early human evolution and was probably required for our reliance upon culturally transmitted information, eventually in the form of language,” Wilson said.

The significance of the article is indicated by the reviewers’ comments, one of whom states that it will be “highly influential in the years to come.” The research also earned Gervais the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater scholarship award.

Gervais’ study suggests that “laughter, play and positive emotion should facilitate learning, cooperation, creativity, peace of mind – all things for which society at large strives.” The study lends credence to the old saying that laughter is the best medicine, and it provides an evolutionary explanation for why this is so.

Although all the great apes share a rudimentary form of play panting, laughter is uniquely elaborated in humans and has likely been that way since cavemen – more properly called hominids – became bipedal around 4 million years ago. Such elaborated laughter followed from social play, and also from slapstick mishaps, such as someone tripping over a rock.

“Humor is just a disembodied form of the non-serious incongruity that underlies tickling and chasing and play fighting,” Gervais said. Laughing at such stimuli was actually really important in human evolution, as it facilitated social play when life got really hard on the African Savannah.” By occurring selectively during safe periods and eliciting the motivation to play in others, laughter worked to relieve stress and build physical, cognitive and social resources.

The study also suggests that there are two very different forms of laughter. Around 2 million years ago, evolution began to reorganize hominids’ brains, giving them conscious control of their facial muscles. This gave way to what some have called “dark” laughter. Rather than being dependent on social play and positive emotion, we are now able to fake laughter in a way that no other primates can. We can wield language, and so also access laughter to smooth conversational interaction, appease or even embarrass others.

Wilson said Gervais’ research is earning praise from experts because it connects so many disciplines, including neurobiology, social psychology and physical anthropology.

“Evolution is often portrayed as ruthlessly competitive, so it is heartening to know that the capacity to laugh and all that it represents is also something that evolved,” Wilson said. “In general, laughter is associated with positive individual and societal development.”

Since its publication, Gervais’ study has received attention worldwide and has been featured by newsmakers as diverse as the BBC and Asian News International.

Gervais, who was a football linebacker at Liverpool High School and a two-time state high school power lifting champion, has mixed feelings about the recent attention. “It feels great, a vindication of weekends spent holed up in my dorm room, and it’s also a huge plus for grad school applications,” he said. “But then it’s alarming, somehow a confirmation of my uber-dork status, and it’s surreal, too.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08