Dr Sophie Scott, UCL
Could laughter really be the best medicine? Quite possibly, as Sophie Scott explained to Graihagh Jackson...
Sophie - You do after you’ve been laughing get a decrease in adrenaline levels and also decreases in cortisol levels, which does suggest that your are more relaxed. You’re feeling less stressed after you’ve been laughing.
Graihagh - This is Sophie Scott from UCL and she’s done a lot of research into laughter…
Sophie - Laughter’s more like a different way of breathing than it is anything else. So what happens when you’re laughing is the intercostal muscles, which is the muscle between your ribs, start to move in large contractions and they just squeeze air out of you. Now normally you use those muscles to control what’s called metabolic breathing, so you’re doing that all the time, that’s what keeps you alive. You use those same muscles to speak, so as soon as you start talking you use the intercostal muscles to very finely control the flow of air out through your larynx. If I keep talking without another breath my intercostal muscles start to have to work really, really hard to get the air out, squeeze the air out and in the end I’ll run out of air altogether.
As soon as you start laughing you lose the control of the intercostal muscles that lets you breath and lets you talk and, in fact, because one of the main jobs that you're doing with your breathing when you’re speaking is actually controlling how you pass air through your larynx, so how you’re making a sound in your voice box. Very often, the first thing you can pick up when someone’s talking and starting to laugh is this loss of control of the pitch of the voice, and very often the pitch of the voice starts to shoot up because you’re starting to squeeze air out under much higher pressures than you would ever do when you were speaking normally.
So this is an example of the Radio 4 broadcaster Charlotte Green who’s introducing a piece on the Today programme about a very early discovery of recorded sound and then she goes on to talk about somebody quite famous who's died. And in the interim when they're listening to this very early example of recorded sound, someone who’s in the studio with her makes a joke about what it sounds like. So you’ll hear what happens to her voice when she comes back to try to talk about the death of a screenwriter.
Charlotte - American historians have discovered what they think is the earliest recording of a human voice made on a device which scratched sound waves onto paper blackened by smoke. It was made in 1860, 17 years before Thomas Edison first demonstrated the gramophone and featured an excerpt from a French song “Clair de Lune”...
The award winning screenwriter Abby Mann has died at age 80. He won an academy award in 1961 for Judgement at Nuremberg. Excuse me sorry… Abby Mann also won several Emmys including… including one in 1973 for a … for a film which featured a .... police detective called… A character on whom a long running TV series was eventually based.
Graihagh - Ah that’s such a great clip.
Sophie - It’s kind of beautiful isn’t it? She’s desperately trying to keep going. I think that’s one of the things that enjoyable about it, she’s on live radio - she’s got to keep talking and her voice is just going everywhere. We don’t really understand how that happens. There’s something about the neural changes that happen when you start laughing that means it does overwhelm speaking and it does overwhelm breathing, and even if you do not want to laugh aloud you start making all these funny noises.
Graihagh - So beyond just those contractions of those muscles, what sort of effect does that have on the rest of our body?
Sophie - There’s evidence for a range of changes in terms of the biochemistry of the body. So you do, after you’ve been laughing, immediately get a change in the body’s uptake in naturally circulating endorphins so you get a measurable change in pain thresholds after you’ve been laughing. That looks like it’s more to do with the work you’re doing at your rib cage than it is anything specifically to do with laughing because you get the same change in endorphin take up if you do any kind of exercise, you’d get a change in pain thresholds, so that may not be laughter specific. You also get, over slightly longer timescales, a decrease in adrenaline levels and also decreases in cortisol levels, which does suggest that you’re more relaxed, you’re feeling less stressed after you’ve been laughing, and that might be more specific to laughter.
Graihagh - Does that mean we should all be laughing? You look like you’re about to laugh yourself! Does that mean we should all be laughing more?
Sophie - I think it’s certainly… we should let ourselves laugh. We should definitely let ourselves go to places and situations where we laugh because we tend to think it’s a bit of a trivial, silly behaviour. And there’s very little research into it scientifically compared to emotions like fear and disgust because it does sort of feel a bit silly to do this. We don’t often let ourselves take our laughter seriously but, actually, I think we should consider it to be an important aspect of our lives that we should give a bit of space to.
Graihagh - Where do we laugh the most? I’m thinking of if we want to give more space to our laughter, what should we be pursuing or going out to do that will invoke laughter?
S - It is quite interesting because if you ask humans and Robert Provine has shown this. If you ask human beings (adults) where do you laugh, what do you laugh at, they’ll talk about jokes, and humour, and comedy. But, actually, we laugh most when we’re with other people, so it’s a behaviour that’s primed just by other people being there. You’re 30 times more likely to laugh if there’s somebody else there than if you’re on your own. And that means, in practice, most of the laughter that you encounter naturally is when you’re talking to other people because that’s what we do when we’re with other people and laughter is less to do in those situations with humour. Hardly ever laughing at jokes, for example. It’s got more to do with making and maintaining social bonds so when you laugh with people you're laughing as much to show them that you like them.
Graihagh - If you’re not laughing at jokes then, what are you laughing at?
Sophie - Well people are laughing at statements like... I will have another cup of coffee or I might miss my bus and, in fact, Robert Provine’s shown that at any one point in time the person who laughs most is the person who’s speaking and I think, in that context, it’s quite interesting. Because there’s some interesting work looking at relationships, and how people deal with stress in relationships, that shows couples who deal with stressful situations by using what the scientists call positive affect, but they mean stuff like laughter not only immediately become less stressed, they’re also the couples who are happier in their relationship and they stay together for longer.
Graihagh - And these interactions - does it always have to be face to face? I’m thinking today people are more mobile, they’re living away from their family and friends, and often that means conversations take place over instant messages or text. Do you evoke this same laughter or is it a different thing altogether.
Sophie - Well there is some evidence that you get most laughter, and people talk for longer, and are happier after conversations that are face to face so that you can see and hear the person more than if you can only hear them, so you’re on the phone and that’s even more again than if you can just got words. So you’ve just got texts, emails, SMS, that kind of thing. So, it does suggest that the more social information you have, the more you will laugh, the happier you’re going to feel, the longer you’re going to talk for, and you can see people trying to put laughter back in. You know in a lot of text-based mediums people try all sorts of ways of writing LOL, or using smiley faces, or emoticons, or anything that will try and kind of suggest I’m giving you laughter. There’s laughter going on. We try and put it back there but it’s never quite the same.
Graihagh - My favourite of those has always been ROFL, which is roll on the floor laughing. But I don’t think I’ve ever ROFL’d after a text.
Sophie - And you can elaborate on that like ROFLCOPTER or just anything to try and indicate the severity of this but, as you say, you’re writing it you’re not necessarily doing it.
Graihagh - I wonder because in today’s society we are increasingly mobile and I’m thinking of with the use of smartphones and instant messaging, it means we have much less of that interaction. Are we laughing less do you think?
Sophie - I don’t know if we are laughing less. We still seem to find a lot of situations where we will be putting ourselves with other people. One of the problems with laughter, if you ask people, people always underestimate it. So if you ask people they just will never tell you anything even remotely approaching how frequently they laugh because it’s almost like you just don’t remember. We’ve laughed throughout our whole meeting today and I don’t really remember that, I don’t have a sense of it. If you asked me I’d probably say four or five times and that would just be wrong. So it’s hard to know if we’re laughing less but my suspicion would be even if people are relying more on other forms of communication, you are still meeting people face to face when you are buying a sandwich, when you are getting on the bus, when you are handing your coat in in a cloakroom. There’s still a lot of these other interactions and it’s those kind of little interstitial spaces where you can have these very transitory uses of laughter just to make very short interactions go better, that I think are probably as important.
Graihagh - You say we’ve been laughing throughout that interview. Actually, I realised when I was editing back some of my very early stuff that I used to do a few years ago, I laugh all the time. And now I’ve just developed this silent laughter where I just throw back my head and go… just to encourage people to laugh and continue on.
Sophie - And it’s a very good technique. There’s work from Robin Dunbar’s lab showing that if you can get people laughing they will tell you more.
Graihagh - Has it worked today?
Sophie - Absolutely. I would never have said half these things… ha ha ha. Oh now what have I done!
Graihagh - So do you think laughter is possibly the best medicine? Is the fable true?
Sophie - I think laughter probably is a really good medicine but I think what we shouldn’t do is think of that like laughter exists on its own. I think it’s the fact that laughter primarily happens in social interactions, and it’s really hard to pull apart from that. So you do find yourself laughing on your own but you laugh much, much more when you’re with other people, and you laugh even more if you like those people. So actually, it’s like the laughter is an index of all this other social stuff that’s going on and it’s very hard to pull apart what’s actually contributing to the benefits of the laugher in that context because, actually, the whole thing could be good for you.