Why Do People Laugh at Funny Things?
According to one widely accepted academic definition, “hilarious” means “ability to delight in or enjoy especially through ridicule.” According to another, it is “a sudden or brief humor.” Another view defines funny as “an abrupt break with reality.” Still another suggests that a comic performance is funny when a social purpose is served by it, when the effect of the humor is intended to raise public awareness or when it brings some emotional reward or satisfaction to the audience. In short, then, funny is subjective – it depends on who is laughing and where the laughter is happening.
So what is the basis for the subjective nature of humour? The source can be traced to the human need to share and the evolution of social communication. Humans evolved in a society where group behaviour was important for survival. Group members were given advantages and responsibilities on a regular basis, and their actions had serious consequences for the entire community. Those actions were constrained by incongruities or discrepancies between their expectations and the realities of their environment, which often produced social conflict and the necessity for laughter.
Ever since they began to laugh, humans have been trying to determine whether or not their actions were effective in propelling the community or group forward. Over time, changes in the brain have allowed us to detect these incongruities, and we can learn to circumvent them. When we are exposed to a situation that makes us laugh, the part of our brain that handles emotional responses triggers a mechanism within us called laughter reflex. This mechanism allows us to temporarily remove ourselves from the emotional response generated by the stimuli of the moment, thereby effectively removing the threat and providing the opportunity to overcome the incongruity. This ability to recognise and remove incongruities from our environment has made us better able to deal with life’s challenges.
Today, the study of laughter has led to the discovery of a number of characteristics common to many forms of human interaction. In fact, we have a wide array of tools to determine whether or not a person is having a good time, as well as the ability to measure the effect the presence of humor has on others. These studies have also led scientists to conclude that humans derive some enjoyment from being funny. Interestingly, the scientists discovered that humor is activated by many physical components beyond the conscious control of the audience member. The brain processes information about the presence of laughter and the body becomes relaxed, thus facilitating the release of various chemicals that allow the human brain to function properly.
So, how does all of this work? In most situations where you find funny things or people, you are reacting to the physical actions of your brain. When a joke is told, the giver’s facial expression, tone of voice, and the physiology of the body are all considered. But there is more to it than that. The reactions that you observe, the sharing that occurs, and the emotions that evolve all depend on the brain processing that information.
The conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is simple: if someone is telling a funny story or joke, they are automatically making the physical body mimic their verbal speech, thus having their tone, the facial expression, and the physiology of their body mirror the speech in some small fashion. For example, when someone is laughing at something funny that they’ve observed another person does, the body will often react in a way that mimics the laughter. But if that same person were to make a comment during that encounter that made them uncomfortable, they would either laugh at the comment or try to correct the speaker. If the speaker was making an observation about the event that was funny but hurtful, the body might react with anger or shame. But ultimately, what matters is whether or not other people laugh with you.