laughing science

Quick Saturday post – because I need to edit another video and I am slack this week, bogged down in research. One of the things I would like to do with this project, is have a look at the neuroscience of laughter. What part of the brain does it come from? Well…the limbic system, our survival centre, our emotional centre, is primary to laughter.

Of course I plan to getting to the actual science studies and sharing them as I go along – but for the moment I am just scraping the surface.

I’ve encountered the old ‘you can’t laugh at that’ policing a lot in my lifetime. Perhaps the policing of what we laugh at is part of our uniquely human sociality, our tendency to try and control the world around us; but it’s also an oxymoron. The more you try and police what people laugh at, the more they find other ways to laugh at it or just do so in private. Why is that?

I’m going to posit that it is part survival technique, something integral to what makes us human. I recently found a piece on pain management and swearing. And swearing, like laughter, is closely related to the limbic system of the brain.

Which is interesting because comedy, often does both. It often harnesses laughter and swearing. And policing people who swear is a literal conservative industry, let’s face it. Some people will step over someone dying because they are swearing, rather than help them. These people are not my people.

There is evidence the urge to swear is quite primal, not really to do with the word itself, not a choice, and far from all the ridiculous clickbait about swearing making you more or less intelligent – the reality is the release of swearing is human. So the drive to police swearing is often about power and control, not any real threat to the supposed social fabric.

While some might reduce laughter to ‘it’s either funny or it’s not’, the reality is far more nuanced, much more complex. In 2016/2017 when I started to explore comedy, I had experienced so much physical and emotional pain that it was part catharsis (see article below from the Centralian Advocate newspaper – please forgive me I will link to a transcript of this article for accessibility reasons soon and edit the post). I knew I was playing part auto-ethnography as an anthropologist and part comedian as social change agent, but was really just playing at the edges of ‘being a comedian’.

I’m loathe to call myself a comedian these days, not because I don’t love comedy and there are some brilliant comedic voices out there, it’s something else. I find the policing of what is considered comedy frustratingly commercialised, much like I find manufactured popstars can be likened to the Woolworths of music. We consume comedy based on supposed mainstream relatability rather than what is actually creative or interesting uses of the art of moving people to laugh. The microphone on chin stand up stage comedy has become so highly commodified and I don’t think I fit that mold of comedy. Never mind the accessibility issues it presents for me as someone with sensory processing disorder. Laughter has become wrapped in social plastic wrap and sold to the masses. I long to be part of a contemporary reinvention of something like Monty Python (which challenged the status quo at the time while a bit cringeworthy now!).

The Centralian advocate. (2017). Page 15, Friday May 12, 2017. Nationwide News Pty. Limited, Alice Springs. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://hdl.handle.net/10070/445608.

At an individual level, there is an aspect of societal control in the regulation of laughter that is very similar to the shaming of addiction and mental health. By policing laughter we are attributing to people more agency and more control over things than they actually might have, in some effort to show we have free will, or choice. Sometimes laughter is spontaneous for a very human reason.

If you are laughing to survive something, no one should tell you not to laugh. I recently saw a parent discussing online how her child was silenced from laughing in hospital by hospital staff. This young person was visiting a dying parent and they were laughing together and were told they were disrespectful by a member of the nursing staff. These last moments with their parent were intervened into by someone meaning to protect some thinly held social superiority – a power trip over this young person’s last memories of a loved parent.

I wanted to cry for them and I won’t hold back here, I want to jettison the staff member into outer space in a large cartoon slingshot.

And I’m reminded of the last time I laughed about Dad in his presence. We had a shared memory of a time I had to resuscitate him in my early 30’s. I had to drag his 80 kilogram frame off a chair. He would laugh at me when I would later say “I don’t want to drag your sorry ass around again” whenever he did cheeky things that put his health at risk. He would love to laughingly remind me that when pulling him off the chair I had put his back in, that I had done him two favors that day.

The last time we shared this joke, I was walking with Mum down to Noosa river inlet. It’s a windy sandy track and I was struggling along and I paused and said to him “Dad this is the last time I drag your sorry ass anywhere”. Mum stopped and laughed and then we both cried for a bit and carried on, me with Dad’s ashes tucked under my arm in a rather heavy box, to the water edge.

I agree some things (like mocking other peoples experiences of violence, sexism, ableism, racism etc. to put them down) should never be mocked. This is because there is also some science about laughter having the ability to reinforce some shitty stuff (even if some in the room doesn’t think it’s funny, there is a contagion like effect that can change behaviour over time). Some behaviours can be made acceptable by laughing at them along with others. But the neuroscience shows that laughter is far more complex than even this, and way more complex than “it’s either funny or it’s not”.

Fuck judging people for laughing at the difficult things in life. The neuroscience places laughter firmly in the part of our brain that is the oldest and most linked to the uniqueness of human survival. I want to embrace that being able to laugh in the face of pain is a hallmark of survival. So, I ask you, have you laughed today?

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