Dissecting the Meaning of Laughter

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “laugh” as “make the spontaneous sounds and movements of the face and body that are instinctive expressions of lively amusement and sometimes also of contempt or derision” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Peoples’ laughs vary from soft and calm to loud and obnoxious, depending on individual differences and extent and context by which humor is experienced in a given situation. However, despite the wide variety of laughs we hear around the world, the definition of laugh as an instinctive rather than learned response indicates that it is an expression of amusement that can be shared by people across all cultures, though the cause of a laughter in one culture may differ from the cause of laughter in another.

Take for example, our recent discussion on humor as a coping mechanism for breast cancer. Following the surge in breast cancer awareness campaigns in the United States, Women who suffered from breast cancer began to stand in solidarity and bond with one another as a way of managing their illness. Consequently, women have begun to find it soothing to poke fun at themselves by taking a situation that is very serious and unamusing, and making it lighthearted and often hilarious in order to battle the stressful and dreadful effects of breast cancer. However, Bouskill explains at the end of her chapter, “I strongly warn against pathologizing cancer survivors outside these kinds of of environments who are not able to seek stress relief… there is nothing wrong with a survivor who does not find breast cancer, or any cancer, humorous” (Bouskill, 230). Bouskill points out that despite the fact that American women are able to use laughter to their benefit in coping with the negative effects of Breast cancer, one cannot assume this will hold true for everyone, for instance, cross-culturally. This example highlights the fact that laughter, although universal, can be very different depending on what it is that people within a culture find humorous. This example also indicates how a type of coping-based laughter develops in a social context to facilitate the bonds women form over their shared suffering with breast cancer. In this sense, it seems that laughter can be both an innate and learned process.

Social laughter

The importance of the social situation in laugher is clearly something that the definition doesn’t account for, and something that is often overlooked when people think about the cause of their laughter. A study examining the social implications on laughter found that people are 30 times more likely to laugh if interacting with another person than when by oneself (Provine & Fischer, 1989). In fact, Provine explains that when laughing in a group, people usually aren’t doing so as a result of a funny joke or humorous act, but are rather laughing with people to show that they understand, agree with and like them. Regarding our class’s discussion about breast cancer and humor, this explanation of laughter as a part of a social construct would explain why people have a difficult time grasping how women can find humor in making jokes about losing their hair, breasts and the intense suffering they endure during their illness. According to Provine, it is possible that these women don’t actually find the joke inherently funny, but that laughing at these sensitive subjects, which are shared amongst them, is a way to show that they understand, empathize with and support one another. The social meaning behind laughter can thus be just as important as the humorous one.

Two types of laughter:

In a Ted Talk entitled, “Why We Laugh,” cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott explains two different types of laughter that humans appear to experience: involuntary, real laughter, and voluntary, posed laughter. In her discussion, she presents her audience with real and fake recorded laughs, and asks the crowd to try and distinguish between the two. The task is easy for most people, as they can clearly differentiate between a laugh that is genuine and a laugh that is forced.

Scott then describes a recent unpublished study that shows how the brain responds to these two different types of laughter. In her experiment, Scott played recordings of both real and posed laughs and simply asked participants to lie down and listen while using fMRI to scan their brains. Results indicated that the brains of those who heard real laughter and posed laughter responded completely differently. Those who heard real, involuntary laughter experienced activity in their auditory cortices (shown in pink, see figure below), likely due to the fact that they were hearing unique novel sounds that were unambiguous and easy to understand. Those who listened to posed, voluntary laughter however, also experienced activity in areas of the brain associated with thinking about what somebody else was thinking (shown in blue). Thus, in a situation in which someone is exhibiting fake laughter, one responds by making cognitive efforts to understand the meaning and purpose behind their laughter. In the future, Scott plans to study children with autism, who exhibit real laughter, but who have difficulty understanding social voluntary laughter, likely due to a lack of theory of mind.


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All in all, laughter is clearly both an instinctive response as well as a learned response. People can find things naturally funny and laugh on impulse, but they can also form laughter in order to show liking, understanding and similarity towards others. Furthermore, humans have developed laughs that aren’t authentic and impulsive, but rather voluntary and strategic, used to exhibit social and cultural norms, manage affective states and to convey oneself advantageously during social interactions.


Link to Ted Talk: Click Here


Bouskill, K. Holistic Humor: Coping with Breast Cancer. (2012). The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (213-235). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

Oxford University. (2005). New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition. NY: Oxford U. Press.

Provine, R. R., & Fischer, K. R. (1989). Laughing, smiling and talking: Relation to sleeping and social context in humans. Ethology, 83, 295—305.




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