The Evolution of the Primal Defense Mechanism Called Laughter

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The August issue of Ode magazine is all about laughing–from laughter yoga to the scientific benefits of giggling to an especially interesting article written by Blaine Greteman that delves into the evolution of laughter: 

Today, we tend to focus on “he who laughs last.”  But he who first burst forth with our characteristic “ha-ha-ha” took a major evolutionary leap toward humanity as we know it.  Laughter is ancient, predating the development of language.  It’s ubiquitous; all mammals do it, panting with delight in response to tickling or pratfalls, as noted by none other than Charles Darwin.  It’s also one of the first things babies learn.  Now, though, scientists are asking two dead serious questions: Where does laughter come from?  And why do we do it?

Greteman begins to answer these questions with the research of scientist Robert Provine:

If you digitally remove the “ha” sound from a human laugh the way Provine has in a recording studio, you hear a long exhalation or sigh.  This extended sigh may be our most primal existential defense mechanism, controlling our breathing in ways known to lower heart rate and blood pressure.  Decoupling the laugh from respiration–so that we can giggle instead of pant–was a crucial evolutionary moment, Provine postulates, because it enabled the vocal control that allowed us to make all kinds of other “fancy sounds” needed for speech.

Source:Ode (article not available online)

Image byJimbowen0306, licensed underCreative Commons.

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