Scientists at MIT believe that laughter evolved just as the human brain did. Along with learning how to develop and use tools, how to hunt, and how to cook our food, the brain evolved – and laughter along with it – to help us better cope with the social demands of living in a large group of humans.
You might be shocked to learn that your big city – Chicago, Dallas, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Madrid – were small as far as population density is concerned compared to the slums of Mumbai. Here, more than a million people can live in the space of a few acres. Theirs lives are compact, and they are plagued with poverty, but they have something going for them that many in the West overlook – humor.
The scientists who have proposed the theory of the social evolution of the brain suggest that our increasing attachment to material things isn’t good for us. It goes against our very nature. That’s because the brain likely evolved to socialize, as human beings had to learn how to interact in larger groups. Laughter, in fact, likely developed in the same way that a blush did – to relieve conversational and social stress and to help bond us with others. This theory is in direct contrast to those which suggest that the human brain evolved to make tools, or figure out how to hunt.
For instance, take a group of chimps. An important way for chimps to make social connections is through grooming. They spend 20 percent of their day grooming each other in pairs. This practice strengthens social bonds, however, there are practical limits to how many chimps can participate in this act before some get left out, and starve. That’s where conversation comes in. The social brain hypothesis suggests that with these tools, groups of ten and more can exchange the bonding ritual – meaning more of the group stays healthy and alive.
Laughter is an extension of this social bonding, moving out into even wider circles of inclusion. Talking limits the number of people who can take place in a conversation, but laughter is almost infinite in the number of people it can include.
From an evolutionary standpoint, laughter also functions as a release valve for social pressure, conflict, and intellectual momentum built up during a conversation. Moreover, it helps us cope with other human experiences – like tragedy and horror.
In fact, participants in a Stanford study who were shown images of gruesome things like car accidents, corpses, or a man disemboweling an animal were found to have higher levels of cognitive functioning and overall well-being when they used humor to describe what they were observing.
History too is littered with the archetypes of the fool, the jester, and the clown to facilitate our own emotional processing of the most tragic and absurd events. Laughter helps us cope with starvation, cruelty poverty, racism, sexism, selfishness, abuse, and manipulation.
The more we can see the absurdity of our own suffering the easier it is to get the Big Cosmic Joke, and laughter helps us to do that. Zen Master Thich Naht Hanh describes this paradox perfectly:
“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of my birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is rather the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”
Laughter is the evolutionary equivalent to Prozac, only it works much better. It allows us to feel the depths of our pain, and come through to the other side – alive. When we can’t change the fact that we were hurt, abused or experienced trauma, laughter helps us release the energy of that pain. As Woody Allen once said, “Death isn’t so bad, have you ever spent the evening with an insurance sales man?”
If you don’t laugh a little every day, you’ve died a little. Make sure to add some mirth to your mix. Your relationships will be better, you’ll have a healthier heart, your immune system will be boosted, and you’ll be living true to the evolutionary directive of the brain – to socialize with the thousands of people you interact with every day. The true purpose of laughter is life.