I posted the other day that social interaction is deeply embedded in our genes.  One wonderful example I stumbled upon in my reading was in Steven Johnson’s fascinating book, Mind Wide Open.  There, among a host of other interesting subjects, Johnson notes that laughter is not originally based on humor, but on social interaction.

Before I get to that, I pause to quote from Johnson about British researchers’ investigation of the “world’s funniest joke”:

Despite the [British] researchers’ claim to have sampled a massive international audience in making this discovery, the winning joke revolved around none other than residents of New Jersey: A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground.  He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head.  The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services.  He gasps to the operator: ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: ‘Just take it easy. I can help.  First, let’s make sure he’s dead.’  There is silence, then a shot is heard.  They guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: ‘OK, now what?’

Mind Wide Open, at 117-118.  I like the joke, but I’m interested to know whether, if you thought it was funny, you laughed out loud.  And if so, where you alone when you did?

Why do I care?  Because of the real punchline of this blog post.  As Johnson notes, neuroscientist Robert Provine, in his substantial research into the basis of laughter, has found that laughter was not connected to humor or incongruity as such, but instead “social interaction”:

[Provine] found support for this assumption in a study that had already been conducted, analyzing people’s laughter patterns in social and solitary contexts.  ‘You’re thirty times more likely to laugh when you’re with other people than you are when you’re alone—if you don’t count simulated social environments like laugh tracks on television,’ Provine says.  ‘In fact, when you’re alone, you’re more likely to talk out loud to yourself than you are to laugh out loud.  Much more.’  Think how rarely you’ll laugh out loud at a funny passage in a book but how quick you’ll be to make a friendly laugh when greeting an old acquaintance.  Laughing is not an instinctive physical response to humor, the way a flinch responds to pain or a shiver to cold.  It’s an instinctive form of social bonding that humor is crafted to exploit.

Mind Wide Open, at 120-121.  Thus, even if you thought the hunters joke was funny, you were less likely to laugh out loud if you were alone, in front of your computer screen, than if someone had told you the joke in a social situation.

Does laughter make us healthier?  Johnson writes about that, too, and connects that to human interaction as well:

Anecdotal evidence along with some clinical studies do suggest that laughing makes you healthier by suppressing stress hormones and elevating S-IgA immune system antibodies.  If you think of laughter as a form of human behavior that is basically synonymous with the detection of humor, the laughing-makes-you-healthier premise seems bizarre.  Why would natural selection make our immune system respond to jokes?  [But] Provine’s approach helps resolve the mystery: our bodies aren’t responding to wisecracks and punch lines, they’re responding to social connection.

Mind Wide Open, at 126-127.

Over time, I’ve increasingly wondered whether humor is one of life’s best practices.  If humor, through eons of evolution, has grown to exploit the social-bonding nature of laughter, and social interaction is of substantial value, then perhaps humor really is pretty good medicine.