An epidemic of laughter

Printer-friendly version

A premise of the Radiolab show on Laughter is “that humor has very little to do with it.” Aristotle believed that when a baby first laughs s/he is “ensouled” as a human being (which is a bit confusing because in his work “On the Soul” or De Anima, this essence is shared with all organisms—and therefore, closer to meaning “purposiveness” than what the soul has come to mean in our Judeo-Christian tradition.)  Setting aside millennia of pedantry on the soul, behaviorists have investigated whether other animals in fact do laugh, and by recording and slowing down the chirps of rats Dr. Jaak Panksepp discovered that they appear to be laughing .  In rats (and chimps, perhaps other mammals as well) laughter is a result of tickling and other forms of social communication, and human beings also laugh for many reasons unrelated to "humor".

In Act Two the show discusses how and when men and women laugh differently, in part to set up the most interesting third act of the story.  In 1962, a girl's boarding school on the outskirts of a rural village in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) started an epidemic of laughter so contagious that it was written up as a case of “mass hysteria” in the Central African Medical Journal (1963).  Although well documented, no satisfactory explanation for the epidemic was given—although many hypotheses are offered in the show.  This is the generic way to conclude a show for RadioLab’s hosts Jad Adumrad and Robert Krulwich, and I mention it here because it is one of the show’s prime virtues.  Their stories are not intended to offer explanations so much as to demonstrate the methods used by scientists to clarify questions for further research.

Before the laughter epidemic was a plague of caterpillars, the girls might have stepped on, and the animal spirits figured prominently in the local witch doctors’ views of the epidemic, but might there not have also been a bacteria in these caterpillars responsible for the girl’s uncontrollable laughing?  They also investigate whether “Independence” from 40 years of British rule, which occurred just weeks before the contagion of laughter in 1961, might have been the cause.  There was singing, drumming and dancing, but also socialist measures to abolish local clans and religions worshipped for thousands of years, whereupon Catholic missionaries and Protestants from every denomination moved in and started a bidding war for the new nation’s souls…Could laughter be stimulated by our anxieties about radical and rapid changes in our lives?

I don’t know much about the psychology of social change, though we are all going through radical and rapid changes now and have been for so long, change has become a kind of steady-state, a normative velocity, even acceleration.  This hypothesis to explain the epidemic of laughter strikes me as the most plausible, though it may also be the most difficult to verify, or even clarify in such a way that it could be tested experimentally.  By some measures (population, CO2, climate temperature, violent conflict over scarce resources, emerging diseases, etc.) we are trending for the worse, so perhaps we are ourselves primed for a global epidemic of laughter. What are the downside risks of contagious laughter?  Would there be anyway to harness this potential energy to emeliorate the painful choices we must make to turn around these trends? 

Last modified Wed, 26 Jun, 2013 at 5:00