When did people start smiling?
Laugh without joke
The self-experiment is very simple: Just watch one of the numerous comedy programs all by yourself. Most likely, the number of hearty laughs will remain manageable at this dubious pleasure. And that's not just because of bad gags.
Very few people laugh when they are alone. Everyday experience shows that people usually laugh in a group. The constellation of people within the group is more important for the success of a laugh than the punch line of a joke.
Who is the joke teller? Is he an "alpha animal", that is, a leader? Is he able to attract the attention of the people in the room, possibly even the interests of the opposite sex? 80 percent of the so-called "fun communication", i.e. communication that involves laughing, even manages without any humor or punch line.
Where is the laugh?
The US psychologist Robert Provine has discovered in more than 15 years of laughter research that the phenomenon of laughter is much more than a knee-jerk contraction of the abdominal and facial muscles. Laughter is social interaction, a particularly intense and often unconscious form of communication.
Evolutionary biologists assume that the first ancestors of Homo sapiens did not develop any forms of culture six million years ago, but the beginnings of human laughter did.
This assumption is supported by the knowledge that laughter has its origin in the limbic system, an evolutionarily very old part of the brain. The language center must have formed later in the course of evolution because it is located in the cortex, an outer brain region.
Since when do people laugh?
How important laughter must have been in a Stone Age world without language is made clear by the following example: Homo rudolfensis discovered the stone wedge around 2.5 million years ago. With that he could already smash the head of his counterpart, but was not yet able to speak to him.
During the day, primitive humans, like animals, could use gestures of superiority and humility to prevent themselves from doing this. At night, however, these gestures and facial expressions could not be seen.
Back then, people were dependent on noises. Many scientists see the origins of laughter in the grunted "I-do-you-nothing-you-do-me-nothing" sounds of our ancestors. Laughter is no longer as vital to survival as it used to be, but similar patterns can also be seen in today's social contacts.
For example, if two people talk to each other on the phone, they intuitively feel whether the person on the other end of the line is smiling. The German laughter researcher Carsten Niemitz found out that a smile changes the voice melody, breathing and speech rhythm.
80 percent of all laughs are not based on a joke or punch line. Most people laugh in order to convey something consciously or unconsciously to the other person. Laughter is first and foremost a means of communication.
The following example shows how important this non-verbal language is: A boss tells an employee a joke. Normally, the boss starts to shout out loud and the employee starts to laugh too, even if he considers the joke's entertainment value to be rather low.
It is not the joke that provokes the employee's laughter, but rather the supposed expectations of his boss: Laugh along! The employee usually meets these expectations in order to confirm the boss in his role as boss, otherwise he fears negative consequences.
Just imagine the clerk refusing to laugh at the boss in agreement. With this type of laugh, researchers have found that the person laughing in front of them usually laughs out loud and vocal. The people who react to laughter hold back in the volume.
But laughter can mediate a lot more between people than mere positions of power. Laughter can also be used as an indicator of sympathy or antipathy. The people in a travel group who will spend the coming week together have been shown to laugh at each other more often at the beginning of this time than at the end.
Even in the first few hours, frequent laughter clarifies who is the most likable in the group. Laughter shows that two people are friendly to one another, that they agree with one another, that is, that they have a basis in common.
This group-finding process happens almost exclusively unconsciously. Laughing communication has the advantage here that the feelings are not openly expressed and so nobody has to feel directly hurt. Because of its organizational function within social groups, many scientists also refer to laughter as a social lubricant or glue.
The doctrine of laughter
Around 200 laughter researchers worldwide, so-called gelotologists (gelos is Greek for "laugh"), investigate what and how people communicate when they laugh. They are researching in two directions: Most scientists examine the facial expressions when laughing, only a handful deal with the noises that are created.
Laughter researchers now believe they can differentiate between real and fake laughter. A real laugh begins no later than half a second after the stimulus to laugh. The laughing person closes his eyes and then doesn't look at his counterpart anymore. Another indication are the smile lines. If they are missing, laughter is probably a pretense.
When laughing, amazing things happen to the human voice: In a few milliseconds, a woman laughing heartily reaches a pitch of 1000 Hertz, the normal frequency being 100 Hertz.
The scientists say that the complex process of laughing, i.e. the laughing melody, the grunting and snoring sounds and the change in pitch are unconsciously controlled and therefore can never be credibly imitated. Everyone instinctively recognizes whether the other person's laughter is real.
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