Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

...and the whole world laughs with you

After spending the last three weeks plumbing rather dour depths, it seems only fair that we devote a few entries to exploring some lighter questions: What is laughter, and why do we do it? What role does humour play in contemplative practice? What is the importance of play for the body-mind and our relationships with others?

Also, how cute is this?!:

Neuroscientist Sophie Scott characterises laughter as a “special,” very “basic” kind of breathing…in fact, she says that one of the reasons that people get such a buzz from laughing is due to the inordinate range of rib contractions and expansions that occur while we’re doing it. 

Look at the following graphs, which show the patterns of rib contractions during “normal” breathing, speaking, and laughter.

It becomes clear that the forceful punctuation of the laughter pattern shows quite a departure from the way the ribcage usually works. From a yogic perspective, the movements demonstrated in the chart most closely resemble what happens during a type of “cleansing” prānāyāma known as kapālabhātī. This technique, practised at least since the time of the Hathapradīpikā (15th century CE) involves a long series of forceful exhalations, as though you were trying repeatedly to blow out a trick candle flame through your nostrils. The Sanskrit name of the technique translates roughly to mean “shining skull” due to the heady buzz some practitioners experience as a result of this technique. 

Kapālabhātī serves as a means of ridding the lungs of stale air, ostensibly in order to facilitate a greater oxygen intake—however, this claim is dubious to say the least. As William J. Broad explains in The Science of Yoga, the red blood cells which carry oxygen to the tissues of the body are essentially always (barring some illness or pathology) at least 97 percent saturated with oxygen; therefore, the idea that we can take greater amounts of oxygen into the system is really a bunch of hot air. In actuality, kapālabhātī affects amount of carbon dioxide in the system. While we tend to think of CO2 as simply a waste product, it actually serves a very important purpose in the physiology of the body. The ratio of carbon dioxide to oxygen in the system attempts to keep itself within a very specific range, which allows us to experience a relative degree of homeostasis. Excess amounts of carbon dioxide tend to depress the various systems of the body, creating a slowing down of both body and mind.  Conversely, when thedrops to levels lower than normal, it provides a stimulating effect. Broad explains:

The reason is that the drop in carbon dioxide causes blood vessels in the brain to contract, reducing the flow of oxygen and producing lightheadedness and perhaps blurred vision. Other symptoms include dizziness and giddiness. In extreme cases, a person can hallucinate or pass out. 
What this means in plain English—as crazy as it seems, as contrary to popular yoga as it appears—is that fast breathing lowers the flow of oxygen to the brain, and does so dramatically. Scientists have found that it cuts levels roughly in half.

This is the primary reason that the shining skull breath makes you feel like your skull is shining: by forcing the air out of your lungs repeatedly, you are giving yourself a super-cheap high.

When we compare the activity of the breathing apparatus during laughter and kapālabhātī, it becomes apparent that laughter gives us a high for similar reasons. Eddie Murphy notwithstanding, human beings tend to laugh primarily on the exhalation—which I’m sure you’ve experienced viscerally at some point when something made you laugh so hard that you found it difficult to inhale. This happens regularly in Laughter Yoga, which simply involves laughing yourself into a positive state of being. My favourite form of Laughter Yoga involves having everybody lay down on the ground (many of my favourite things involve lying down!) and creating a multi-body constellation in which everybody has their head on somebody else’s belly. The very act of creating this configuration is often enough to get the laughter started, but if it isn’t, the simple solution is just to have people start fake-laughing. Although fake laughter is a particularly cringe-worthy sound (brain scans confirm this neurological truth), the kinaesthetic experience of feeling the contractions of somebody else’s belly underneath your head, in combination with feeling the bouncing of somebody else’s head on your own belly, leads invariably and instantaneously to fits of genuine laughter. The exercise illustrates the considerable contagiousness of laughter: hearing the chortles and cackles from everybody involved makes you laugh even more, creating a runaway laughter train that becomes nigh on impossible to stop in its tracks. 

The scientific literature is rife with evidence of the benefits of laughter. This study from 1989 shows that laughter significantly reduces the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive complications. And in 2012, Robin Dunbar conducted a study which provided evidence that social laughter releases endorphins, the “feel-good” brain chemicals that, among other functions, improve our ability to tolerate both physical and psychological pain (to the degree that there is a difference between the two).

While it may seem relatively obvious to say, laughter appears to be a categorically social phenomenon. We laugh, on average, thirty (30!!!) times more frequently when we are in the company of others than we do when we are on our own. (I can point out a number of personal exceptions: I laugh regularly and heartily on my own when I watch Modern Family or QI, for example; or when I listen to the QI-spinoff podcast No Such Thing as a Fish; and recently, when reading Paul Beatty’s 2016 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sellout. Yet even in these instances, I am laughing at situations that involve other human beings—it’s just that I have lent my consciousness to an alternative social reality on such occasions.) Furthermore, Sophie Scott points out that the vast majority of our laughter comes not in the form of the heaving, side-splitting, pants-wetting episodes which really good jokes tend to evoke; rather, most of our laughs are much briefer, more controlled, and act essentially as emotional valves when we are talking with others. Unlike the hysterical fits which the likes of Eddie Izzard bring about, conversational laughter often goes entirely unnoticed. In fact, as Alex Borgella contends, it happens so subconsciously that just about everybody tends to dramatically underestimate how often they laugh. 

Imagine, for example, that you are an alien from a planet where laughter does not exist.

Before visiting to Earth, you enrolled in a course in human behaviour, mastered a number of languages in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, and understood the various political and social structures across the planet. You had special class on physical issues and reflexes, such as sneezing, coughing, and farting. And at the advanced level, you took a seminar in cultural enterprises such as music, drama, and sport. Let’s say you even studied the recent greats of comedy: Monty Python, Richard Pryor, Margaret Cho, Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman. You’ve studied their jokes, and you understand what makes them funny; moreover, you also understand that people laugh when something funny happens. Yet—and this is crucial—imagine that you have never actually seen or heard a human conversation.

Now listen to this clip, (just about 3 minutes long) and pay close attention to that strange, nervous tick that interrupts and sometimes overcomes the speakers.

I’d like to point out that the amount of laughter and giggling in this clip is not inordinate, yet the fact that I asked you to pay attention to it probably means that you noticed it far more than you normally would. From your alien perspective, was there anything particularly humorous about what either of the women said in this clip? If you were to see a written transcript of the conversation, you’d have to stretch the imagination a bit to identify more than one or two comical quips—yet they laugh continually with each other throughout. And if you pay attention to your own real-life conversations (or, perhaps more realistically, if you listen in on conversations of other people), you’ll recognise that laughter is essentially a constant social lubricant. 

So why do we do this? The intuitive answer seems to be the correct one: we laugh as a way of including others, and of feeling included ourselves. Can you recall a moment when you first realised you could joke around with a certain coworker or an acquaintance? These first moments of laughter often serve as a means to move past what may have begun as relatively superficial relationships. As Stephen Pinker points out in How the Mind Works, one of the reasons for this is that laughter almost always comes at somebody’s expense. The experience of being laughed at is one of the most obvious ways in which we feel excluded from the group. However, if I make a joke for your benefit, at my own expense, I am subtly telling you that whatever the power dynamic may be between us, I want you to be able to laugh at me— thus putting us on equal footing in that moment. It gets riskier, of course, if I make a joke at your expense; nevertheless, in doing so, I show that I am confident enough in the affection that we have for one another that such a comment can actually strengthen our bond rather than sever it. This is the precise psychological mechanism at work in the British tradition of “taking the piss.” (And no, Elizabeth, these exchanges do not literally involve anyone absconding with anyone else’s urine. [I’ve just demonstrated that I have such a deep sense of security in my relationship with my friend Elizabeth that I am willing to publicly take the piss out of her. And while the joke might have been humorous to several unrelated parties {to the extent that anybody found it funny at all} Brits probably found my comment a bit funnier than non-Brits, and Elizabeth herself is probably still laughing too hard to continue reading this. So that demonstrates varying degrees of the principle of inclusion. But by now, of course, I’ve ruined the "joke" entirely by deconstructing it.]) 

The result, according to Sophie Scott, is that we can attribute part of laughter's high-inducing power to its built-in role in socialising. By the same token, the whole process seems to act as something of a feedback loop: the chemicals involved in the natural high tend to deepen our social bonds, which leads to more laughter, which leads us back to the natural high, ad infinitum

There are a number of neurological reasons for this social aspect of laughter, but I would like to focus on one in particular: you may have heard the term “mirror neurons” in popular science writing, or maybe in a TedTalk. As V.S. Ramachandran puts it, these special brain cells function as a means for individuals to create an internal "virtual simulation" of the actions of an external agent. The discovery of mirror neurons happened when a group of scientists were studying the brains of rhesus macaque monkeys—a relatively close simian cousin of ours. The monkeys’ brains were connected to electrodes which had an extremely precise way of measuring when certain neurons were excited. The researchers found, essentially by accident, that certain motor command neurons came to life both when the monkeys were reaching for a peanut, for example, and when they saw their human caretakers reaching for the nut as well. Since then, it has become clear that there are analogous brain cells in humans which have evolved specifically in order to allow part of us to experience what we are seeing somebody else do: in a very sophisticated way, they allow us to empathise with others.

The fact that mirror neurons are particularly strong when it comes to recognising and interpreting facial expression makes us the supreme empathisers of the animal kingdom. In fact, it appears that there is a direct link between their activity and the activity of our own faces. Studies measuring facial activity using electromyography have shown that, when you look at another person’s face, your own facial muscles tend to imitate the facial expressions of the person you are seeing. These very slight muscular movements, probably unnoticeable to the external eye, seem to be key in interpreting the facial expressions and the emotions of others. By copying the other person, even to the subtlest of degrees, we allow ourselves access to the hearts and minds of those around us. Further research on people who have received Botox injections in their faces seem to support this theory: the Botox prevents the facial muscles from mimicking the target expression, and as a result, those who have received Botox tend to have a much lower rate of success when it comes to correctly interpreting the emotion behind another person’s face. In other words, their inability to physically represent the emotion prevents them from both mentally representing it and experiencing it themselves.

Another interesting implication of this phenomenon is that married couples, long-term partners, and those who spend long periods of time with each other begin, over time, to look alike. According to research by Robert Zajonc, the partners’ frequent unconscious habit of mirroring the other leads them to develop similar wrinkles which, over time, create a shared resemblance. It may follow, therefore, that the more often couples laugh together, the more the lines in their face will come to mirror each other. 

Yet it seems that the benefits of laughing with your partner are more than just skin-deep. Zajonc found that the happier a couple reported themselves to be, the more likely they were to look alike after 25 years of marriage, even if their resemblance was not so strong to begin with. What’s more, Robert Levenson has spent decades doing longitudinal studies of married couples. In one format, he invites them in regularly to measure their physiological activity during stressful conversations. After hooking them both up to devices which measure things like heart rate, skin conductance, and temperature, he initiates an exchange between them by asking one member of the pair to start talking about something that he finds frustrating about his partner. The result is invariably that the body’s stress response becomes immediately elevated for both parties (and probably for Levenson and his research team as well!). Yet Levenson’s study suggests rather plainly that couples who are able to make each other and themselves laugh during these difficult moments reap a number of significant benefits. In real time, laughter tends immediately to reduce the stress response in both partners, which in turn tends to make the conversations far less tense, and ultimately more productive, than the ones in which laughter does not play as great a role. And as a cumulative result, the study finds that the pairs who are able to laugh with each other during their difficult exchanges tend both to stay together longer and to report higher levels of relationship satisfaction through their years as a couple. 

Sophie Scott considers this research a significant bit of evidence that laughter is something which allows us all to “access a really ancient evolutionary system that mammals evolved to make and maintain social bonds, and clearly to regulate emotions, to make ourselves feel better.” Next week we’ll have a look more specifically at the role of laughter, lightheartedness, and humour in yoga, meditation, and the philosophy of making ourselves feel better.

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