Why laughter makes no sense: The surprising science behind what tickles our funny bones

We laugh at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — along with a million other things that aren't even jokes. Here's why

Published April 9, 2014 10:59PM (EDT)

Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart              (Reuters/Mike Blake/AP/Evan Agostini)
Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart (Reuters/Mike Blake/AP/Evan Agostini)

Excerpted from "The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny"

Good news greets us in Uganda as we disembark our plane: “Uganda has defeated the outbreak of Ebola,” announces a large placard standing in the airport’s main hall. “Please have a nice stay.”

Well, that’s a relief.

We actually have a different malady in mind—one far less lethal than Ebola, but evocative nonetheless. We’re here in East Africa on the trail of the so-called 1962 Tanganyika laughter epidemic. As the story goes, in 1962 in the northwest corner of Tanganyika (a country now known as Tanzania), hundreds of people began laughing uncontrollably. The affliction, if you could call it that, spread from one person to the next, and nothing seemed to stop it. Schools shut down. Entire villages were caught in its throes. When the laughing stopped months later, a thousand people had come down with the “disease.”

unnamedSince then, the Tanganyika laughter epidemic has captured imaginations the world over. Newspaper articles have been written about it, radio shows have explored it, and documentaries have dramatized it. But many of these accounts detailed the incident from afar, relying on second-hand sources, scraps of information, and rumors. Few people have investigated the event themselves, tracking the laughter all the way to its source. That’s why we’re here.

To be honest, we’re a bit skeptical of the whole account. Uncontrollable laughter, jumping from person to person like devilish possession, doesn’t make sense. But something happened in Tanganyika in 1962. There are enough firsthand accounts and medical reports to confirm that. But what that something is—and what, if anything, is has to do with humor—has yet to be determined.

We’re hoping our time here will provide us clues about laughter in general, a phenomenon that’s mysterious in itself. We’ve investigated a lot of funny stuff between all that stand-up in Los Angeles and cartoons in New York, but the laughs generated by professional comedy are just a fraction of the chuckles, giggles, and titters in our daily lives. Why is that? Why would we have evolved this odd vocal mannerism, why do we have an innate need to vocally share what we find funny with others? And why, come to think about it, do laughter and humor not always go hand in hand? Why did hundreds of people in 1962 East Africa start laughing when nothing was funny at all? And why is laughter so contagious, so compelling, that it can act like an out-of-control disease?

* * *

It began with three schoolgirls.

On January 30, 1962, at a mission-run girls’ boarding school in Kashasha village not far from Lake Victoria, three school girls “commenced to act in an abnormal manner.” That’s how it’s described in a 1963 Central African Journal of Medicine article titled “An Epidemic of Laughing in the Bukoba District of Tanganyika,” the most authoritative account of the incident. More specifically, according to its authors, local medical officers A. M. Rankin and P. J. Philip, sudden and repeated bouts of laughing and crying seized the girls. The phenomenon soon spread to their classmates. The attacks would last for a few minutes to a few hours, and one poor girl reportedly experienced symptoms for 16 straight days. Victims couldn’t focus on their schoolwork, and would lash out if others tried to restrain them. They claimed things were moving about in their heads, that somebody was out to get them.

By March 18 of that year, 95 of the school’s 159 middle- and high-school girls had been affected. At that point, to temper the ailment’s spread, the school shut down. It reopened on May 21, only to close again when dozens more came down with symptoms. By that point, the epidemic had spread beyond the school.

Kashasha seems as good a place as any to start our investigation, so on our first full day in Tanzania, we head to the village, a small community on a forested ridge overlooking a sweeping, misty valley. Right off the main road we find the school, still in operation, although it hasn’t housed a girls’ school in decades. Now it’s a vocational school. Classes aren’t in session on this overcast, drizzly day, so the campus’s small grassy yards are empty, the shuttered doors to the tinsmith workshop and masonry store creak in the wind. But out of the rain in the school’s small office we find principal Jason Kamala, a stocky man in a casual green shirt. “I have heard much about the big laughter you are after,” he declares in accented English, letting loose with a hearty laugh of his own. He gives us a tour of the tidy but timeworn property, recounting what he knows. He’s told this tale before.

The girls’ school, run by German missionaries, was a model institution, he tells us, one of the first boarding schools in the area. Still, says Kamala, life under the school’s strict religious rules wasn’t easy. He shows us the former dormitory, a long, weather-beaten building that now houses carpentry and welding workshops. When this was a boarding school, he says, there were no windows on the sides of the building facing toward the village, “so they would not see boys and men on the road.” Similarly, students weren’t allowed to use the latrine at night because it was too close to the exterior fence.

Kamala takes us to a classroom on a far corner of the property, a basic affair with cracked walls and broken windows. He points to the wooden chairs inside. They are the same as the ones used in 1962. They’re uncomfortable. The chair backs pitch forward at an awkward angle to promote proper posture—or, as Kamala puts it, to make “good-shaped girls.”

The three girls who started it all were sitting in this classroom when they burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. Bewildered, the teacher rang her school bell, sending the students into the grassy yard outside to calm everyone down. Tracing the students’ path, Kamala positions himself in the yard. Here, he says, other pupils looked at the laughing trio and began cackling themselves. The lawn was soon full of out-of-control cackles. “They laughed and laughed and laughed,” says Kamala.

William Rutta, the Tanzanian guide we’ve hired to accompany us in East Africa, is listening in his fashionable brown sports coat, scribbling away in a small notebook. When I’d first e-mailed him about being our guide, Rutta, the owner of a local safari and tourism company called Kiroyera Tours, had assured me he knew all about omuneepo, the Swahili word for the laughing disease. But now that we’re here, it’s obvious this information is as new for him as it is for us.

But that’s okay. As Rutta would say, “Hakuna matata.”—Swahili for “no worries.” The local phrase, made famous by its use in the Disney film The Lion King, is Rutta’s favorite saying, at least when he’s escorting around mzungus like us, the Swahili term for white people. Everything so far on our trip can been summed up by “Hakuna matata”: that in Uganda, when he picked us up at the airport, the country was in the midst of a mid-level crisis that had led soldiers to fire into crowds of angry protestors? Hakuna matata. That the road between Uganda and Tanzania was being built as we drove along it, leading to hours of stopped traffic punctuated by high-speed dashes through heavy machinery and construction craters? Hakuna matata. That when we tried to cross into Tanzania, the Ugandan border-patrol office was empty, with a sign at the window saying everybody was out to lunch for an indeterminate amount of time? Hakuna matata.

Continuing his tour of the school grounds, Kamala tells us that while he wasn’t at the boarding school in 1962, he has witnessed omuneepo himself—here, at the vocational school, in 1981. “It happened with three boys,” he says. “They were looking at you like this”—Kamala stares at us, wide-eyed—“Then they started laughing: ‘Ha ha ha ha!’ Then you found tears coming. And these boys were so stiff, their whole bodies were so tough. We had to tie them in ropes and put them on mattresses until they recovered.” He’s heard of other cases, too. Every few years a new report of omuneepo pops up at some school or village in the region. Some are just a few years old.

As for what causes these incidents? Kamala just shrugs. “Maybe those who laugh have an element of madness coming into their brains.”

There is something almost akin to madness in how and when we laugh. It’s not as simple as a basic reaction to something funny. Oftentimes we don’t laugh when we come across something humorous, like how all those witty New Yorker cartoons we considered in New York left us with appreciative smiles. And laughter sometimes comes when nothing is funny at all. Type “uncontrollable laughter” into YouTube and you’ll find dozens of clips of newscasters cracking up for no apparent reason in the middle of stories about war zones and political scandals. There’s nothing humorous about these moments. Their jobs could be on the line, but they can’t stop cracking up.

No one has illustrated laughter’s strange tendencies better than Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A few years ago, Provine took a look at the current state of laughter research and wasn’t impressed. “People had been struggling with explaining laughter for thousands of years. I thought it was time to try something else,” Provine told me. “I wanted to do something that would get me into empirical science, and away from essay writing.” So Provine engaged in what he called “sidewalk neuroscience,” tracking and observing real-world laughter. He and his collaborators used tape recorders to capture more than a thousand “laugh episodes” in bars and shopping malls and cocktail parties and class reunions. And he had dozens of student volunteers note in a “laugh log” the circumstances around every time they tittered, chuckled, or guffawed.

His findings, detailed in his book, "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation," were surprising, even to Provine. Less than 20 percent of the real-world laughter incidents he catalogued were in response to anything resembling something funny. Far more often, people were giggling or chuckling at innocuous statements such as “I’ll see you guys later,” “I see your point,” and “Look, it’s Andre!” Not only that, but in all these cases, the person who produced the laugh-provoking statement was 46 percent more likely to be the one chuckling than the person listening. And while laughter might seem like something that can erupt at any point in response to something funny, in only eight of the 1,200 laugh episodes did the laughter interrupt what somebody was saying. Instead, in 99.9 percent of the time, laughter occurred in tidy, natural breaks in the conversation, punctuating the speech like a period or exclamation point.

Provine discovered that the laughter of our everyday lives wasn’t for the most part a by-product of anything resembling jokes. Instead most of it occurs in the give-and-take we have with others that in hindsight doesn’t seem funny at all. This finding puts the challenge of being a professional comedian in a whole new light. A comic is physically removed from the audience; he or she is talking at them, not with them, and for the most part isn’t supposed to laugh during the routine. Comedians are essentially trying to score laughs in the exact opposite way that most people do. Now, we don’t believe it’s time to reinvent stand-up along the lines of everyday conversations. As we learned the hard way, chatting one-on-one with Louis C.K. is far from a hilarious experience.

Pete thinks the benign violation theory might play a role in Provine’s unusual findings. The seemingly unfunny bits of dialogue that triggered most bouts of laughter might still be benign violations, says Pete—just violations that are so benign they’re only laughable when you’re right there, in the moment. It’s the ultimate version of “you had to be there.” Whether or not this is the case, Provine’s discoveries suggest that laughter is inherently social, that at its core it’s a form of communication. Sure enough when Provine went through the laughter logs he’d collected, he found his participants were 30 times more likely to laugh in the presence of others than when they were alone. Among the few solitary instances of laughter, nearly all occurred in response to TV shows or other media—in short, electronic proxies for other people. When people were truly alone, laughter all but disappeared.

Provine found one other piece of evidence that he believed demonstrated laughter’s social power, one other bit of proof that suggested laughter’s communal sway was far more dramatic than most people realize. As he noted in an article in American Scientist, “The Tanganyikan laughter epidemic is a dramatic example of the infectious power of laughter.”

Is he right? Was what started here 60-odd years ago in this boarding school an instance of laughter’s social power gone haywire? We have more investigating to do.

Excerpted from "The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny" by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Copyright © 2014 by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

By Peter McGraw

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By Joel Warner

Joel Warner, who blogs for Wired.com and Psychology Today, is co-authoring a book about traveling around the world with a humor professor in search of what makes things funny. Find out more at Humorcode.com and on Twitter @HumorCode

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