My conversation with Sophie Scott is nearly over when she spins round in her chair to show me a video of a near-naked man cannon balling into a frozen swimming pool. After a minute of flexing his muscles rather dramatically, he makes the jump – only to smash and tumble across the unbroken ice. The water may have remained solid, but it doesn’t take long for his friends to crack up. “They start laughing as soon as they see there isn’t blood and bones everywhere,” says Scott. “And they are SCREAMING with mirth; it’s absolutely helpless.”
Why do we get such an attack of the giggles – even when someone is in pain? And why is it so contagious? As a neuroscientist at University College London, Scott has spent the last few years trying to answer these questions – and at TED 2015 in Vancouver last nweek, she explained why laughter is one of our most important, and misunderstood, behaviours
Scott’s work has not always met the approval of her straight-laced colleagues. She
likes to point out a handwritten note she once found stuck to the top of her printouts.
“This pile of paper seems like rubbish (because of the nature of the material) and will
be disposed of if not collected,” the note read. “Is this science?” In an ironic nod to the
criticisms, Scott is now wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the question, ready for a
comedy gig she is hosting later in the evening.
She started out her career by examining the voice more generally, and the rich
information it offers about our identity. “You can get a good shot at my gender, my age, my socioeconomic status, my geographical origins, my mood, my health, and
even things to do with interactions,” she says.
One of her experiments involved scanning professional impersonator Duncan Wisbey
to explore the way that he comes to adopt the subtle mannerisms of other people’s
speech. Surprisingly, she found that the brain activity seemed to reflect areas normally
associated with bodily motion and visualisation – as he, almost literally, tried to work
his way under the skin of a character. More generally, the work on impersonations
has helped her pin down the regions involved in things like accent and articulation –
important aspects of our vocal identity.
The more she probed, the more she became fascinated by its intricacies. For
instance, she soon found out that the vast majority of laughs have nothing to do
with humour. “People genuinely think they are mostly laughing at other people’s
jokes, but within a conversation, the person who laughs most at any one time is
the person who is talking,” she says. Instead, she now sees laughter as a “social
emotion” that brings us together and helps us to bond, whether or not something is
actually funny. “When you laugh with people, you show them that you like them,
you agree with them, or that you are in same group as them,” she says. “Laughter
is an index of the strength of a relationship.”
That might explain why couples can roll about laughing at each other’s apparent wit
– while onlookers fail to be infected. “You’ll hear someone say ‘he’s got a great sense of humour and I really fancy him because of it’. What you mean is ‘I fancy him and I
show him I like him by laughing when I’m around him.’”
Indeed, mirth might be the primary way of maintaining relationships; she points to
research, for instance, showing that couples who laugh with each other find it much
easier to dissipate tension after a stressful event – and overall, they are likely to stay
together for longer. Other recent studies have shown that people who laugh together at
funny videos are also more likely to open up about personal information – paving more
common ground between people.
Even the hilarity at the German man falling in the frozen swimming pool may have
united the friends. “It’s interesting how quickly his friends start laughing – I think it’s
to make him feel better,” says Scott. Along these lines, Robin Dunbar at the University
of Oxford has found that laughter correlates with increased pain threshold, perhaps
by encouraging the release of endorphins – chemicals that should also improve social
Scott is now interested in picking apart the differences between the “posed” giggles
we might use to pepper our conversation – and the absolutely involuntary fits that can
destroy a TV or radio broadcast, like this:
For instance, she found that the less authentic tones are often more nasal – whereas
our helpless, involuntary belly laughs never come through the nose. Her MRI scans,
meanwhile, have looked at the way the brain responds to each kind of laughter.
Both seem to tickle the brain’s mirror regions – the areas that tend to mimic other’s
actions. These areas will light up whether I see you kicking a ball, or if I kick it
myself, for instance – and it could be this neural mimicry that makes laughter so
contagious. “You are 30 times more likely to laugh if you’re with someone else,”
she says. An important difference, however, is that the less spontaneous, social
laughs, tend to trigger greater activity in areas associated with “mentalising” and
working out other people’s motives – perhaps because we want to understand why
they are faking it.
You may think it is easy to tell the difference between involuntary and more artificial
laughs, but Scott thinks the skill develops slowly across the lifespan and may not peak
until our late 30s. For this reason, she has recently set up an experiment at London’s
Science Museum, where her team will be asking visitors of different ages to judge the
authenticity of different clips of people laughing and crying. After all, she points out
that crying is an infant’s primary way of communicating, whereas laughter gains more
importance the older we get.
Although we may tend to dislike certain people’s “fake” laughs, Scott thinks it
probably says more about us, and the way we are responding to their social signals,
than anything particularly irritating about them. She tells me about an acquaintance
who had frequently irritated her with a persistent, fluting, laugh. “I always thought
that she laughed so inappropriately, but when I paid more attention to it I saw that what was odd was simply the fact I didn’t join in. Her laughter was entirely normal.”
If she hadn’t disliked the person already, she says, she would have laughed away and
wouldn’t have even noticed.
Why not listen to some of Scott’s clips and judge your own abilities to read people’s
Besides probing the bonds in our closest relationships, Scott’s curiosity has also
taken her to comedy clubs. “What’s interesting about laughter in the situation of
stand-up is that it’s still an interaction,” she says. In a way, the audience is having a
conversation with the comedian. “I’m interested in what happens when the audience
starts laughing and how it dies away – whether are you in sync with people around
you or whether you don’t care, because the experience is just between you and the
person on the stage.”
Paradoxically, she says, comedians often find it easier to work in large venues,
perhaps because the contagious nature of laughter means that waves of mirth can
catch on more easily when there are more people. She recalls a video of comedian
Sean Lock reducing the audience to fits of hysterics simply by saying the word
“cummerbund” occasionally, thanks to the infectious laughter spreading through
So far, she has tried to equip audience members watching comedians with sensors
to track the outbreak of laughter, with limited success – the audience froze under the
attention. But she hopes to continue the work with a high-profile comedian like Rob
Delaney, who may be able to break through the awkwardness.
Scott occasionally takes up the microphone herself at comedy nights in London, and
I ask her if her insights have fed her stage persona? She disagrees that science has
offered her a fast track to comic genius, though as I discover at a charity gig the
following evening, she is very funny.
As her “Is this science?” T-shirt reminds us, her more uptight colleagues might
disapprove of her flippant attitude – but then, Scott understands just how powerful
a tool that laughter can be to express ourselves, and get people to listen. “Laughter
seems trivial, ephemeral, pointless,” she says. “But it is never neutral – there’s always
a meaning to it.”
– David Robson
B. Match the following emotions with their definitions.
a. fear i. a feeling of strong disapproval aroused by something unpleasant
b. anger ii. affected with grief or unhappiness
c. surprise iii. a pleasurable or satisfying experience
d. disgust iv. a great victory or achievement
e. sadness v. a strong feeling of displeasure
f. happiness vi. an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm
g. relief vii. the quality or state of being satisfied
h. triumph viii. removal or lightening of something oppressive, painful, or distressing
i. contentment ix. an unexpected event, fact, etc.
C. The author writes, “. . . the contagious nature of laughter means that waves
of mirth can catch on more easily when there are more people.” Find out
the situations in which the following types of laughter are found.
a. etiquette laughter b. snorting laughter
c. stress-relieving laughter d. silent laughter
e. nervous laughter f. cruel laughter
D. A unit of pronunciation at least with one vowel is called a syllable. Listen to
your teacher saying the words and say the number of syllables.
charge, duty, laughter, commission, undertaking, responsibility, hilarity,
persistent, infectious, ephemeral
A. Complete the following sentences with words/ phrases from the text.
a. According to Sophie Scott, laughter is one of the important and
b. After her study in Namibia, Scott came to the realization that…………….
c. Studies have shown that there are …………..based on facial expressions.
d. Scott found out that most of the laughs have nothing …………….
e. The couples who laugh at each other are likely to ………………
f. The primary way of communication of grown up people is …………… .
g. Comedians usually find it easier to work in larger places due to ………….. .
B. Answer the following questions.
a. Why do people giggle at someone’s pain or suffering?
b. What did Scott’s study in Namibia come up with?
c. How is laughter a social bonding?
d. According to the author, what role does laughter play in husband-wife
e. How does laughter work as a painkiller?
f. What did the study find about the relation between laughter and brain?
g. What are two emotions that the author associates with infants and adults?
h. How does a stand-up comedian take the audience’s laughter?
i. Show the relation between laughter and crowd.
j. What does the author mean when he says “there is always a meaning to it?”
a. Do you agree that ‘the couples, who laugh together, stay together?’ Is it important
for married couples to have the same sense of humour? Why?
b. Some people believe that sometimes crying is good for health. Do you believe
it? Give your reasons.
A. Write a paragraph narrating an event from your life when you were involved in
B. Write a description of your favourite comedian explaining his/her personality,
acting, performance and uniqueness.
A. Study the following sentences from the text. The words in bold are called
a. Belly laughs never come through the nose.
b. There is always a meaning to it.
c. She found that the less authentic tones are often more nasal.
d. Scott occasionally takes up the microphone herself at comedy nights in
e. She tells me about an acquaintance who had frequently irritated her with
a persistent, fluting, laugh.
B. Put the frequency adverbs in appropriate place and rewrite the following
a. I forget to do my homework. (sometimes)
b. My father has touched an alcoholic drink in his life. (never)
c. My father goes for a walk on Saturdays. (often)
d. We go to the movie theatre. (occasionally)
e. My brother is in America. He telephones us. (from time to time)
f. My mother gets up at five o’clock. (always)
g. He does not like alcoholic drinks but takes some wine. (now and then)
h. I drink my tea with milk. (generally)
i. Have you been to Agra? (ever)
j. The restaurant hours vary as it is booked for special events. (frequently)
Expressing feelings, emotions and attitudes
A. Find and say the adjectival forms of the following verbs.
impress excite irritate upset interest surprise
offend shock confuse amuse attractive disgust
B. Work in groups. Study the following conversation and have similar
conversations in the following situations.
A: What do you think of people who can’t keep their promises?
B: I find people who can’t keep their promises really disgusting.
C: Yes, people who can’t keep their promises disgust me too.
D: Yes, I agree. I get terribly disgusted when people can’t keep their promises.
a. social media b. politics
c. tourists d. slim people
e. comedy shows f. people with colourful hair
g. people who smoke in public places
Nepali Television channels show many comedy shows these days. Which is your
favourite show? Perform mimicry of your favourite character in the class.