This is your brain on laughter

Studio 360
Sophie Scott performing stand up at the Bright Club, an organization through University College London that allows professors to become comedians for a night  (Steve Cross )

Sophie Scott performing stand up at the Bright Club, an organization through University College London that allows professors to become comedians for a night  (Steve Cross )

Sophie Scott is fascinated by laughter — and she thinks that cognitive science and psychology are missing out by ignoring it.

“It does seem to completely overwhelm your motor system,” Scott says. “You can't do anything else — you find yourself gasping for breath, you can't talk, it is trying to kill you, just squeezing air out of you. It is slightly sinister.”

A cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, Scott studies how we distinguish between “social” or “voluntary” laughter (the way you politely laugh at a co-worker’s jokes) and “authentic” or “involuntary” laughter (the kind that causes you to gasp for breath). She’s found that children are unable to tell the difference between the two, and our ability to discriminate doesn’t hit its peak until we’re in our 30s.

“That suggests that you’re learning about social laughter throughout your entire early adult life, probably because you can only learn about it in social interactions,” Scott says. 

Laughter, according to Scott, is more complicated than we think it is. 

“Nothing's ever simple with humans and I think one of the things that's very interesting about laughter is, in some ways pretty much everything we think we know about it — and this includes a lot of scientists — is wrong,” Scott says. “We think it's linked with jokes and humor, and it is linked to jokes and humor. But actually, most the time when you're laughing in a conversation with somebody, you're laughing to show that you know them, you like them, you might even love them, you agree with them, you understand them, you're part of the same group as them. You're doing all this kind of affiliative work with laughter.”  

When Scott studies the brain during laughter, she says there’s a big difference between social laughter and involuntary laughter. 

“What we see in the brain is there's actually more response to social laughter than there is to spontaneous laughter,” Scott says. “There's lots of activation to spontaneous laughter and it's strongly associated with auditory processing, probably because you hear sounds you never hear in any other context. But when you listen to social laughter, you get all these activations in brain areas associated with thinking about what other people think. And they're activated normally in very complex tasks where you ask people to work out problems about what somebody else knows. ... It's never neutral, it's always meaningful, and we're trying to work out what that meaning is.”

Scott has been putting her scientific knowledge of laughter to the test in new arenas beyond the lab. She recently joined her London university’s Bright Club and has been trying her hand at standup comedy. 

“It's also given me a whole different perspective on how laughter works,” Scott says. “It's actually been an incredibly helpful way of just thinking completely differently about laughter. So it's actually been very helpful for my science. ... I mean no one's under any illusion that I'm a professional comedian — I'm a scientist. They know I'm a professor, and they're very kind but I found it a very interesting discipline.” 

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.