The human laughs. It’s pretty generalizable in this exception-laden world. There are so many human cultures that it becomes really difficult to find traits that unite us all. Not all cultures draw, sing, or cook… His family model changes, as well as his economy and his spirituality. Even when we try to search for principles ethical universal, we find disturbing differences, such as the very different definition of “incest” that some cultures do. That is why it is so interesting laughterbecause in principle practically all of us have laughed at some point, no matter where we were born or in what culture we live immersed. Of course we don’t understand laughter in the same way, but it’s there, and for a while, some experts even thought it was so human that no other animal was truly capable of laughing.
After such an anthropocentric statement, it is healthy that our brain has tried to find counterexamples, cases of animals that do laugh and that destroy the idea that we are unique. We may have thought about hyenas, for example, but here is a detail that we must not overlook: what are we calling laughter? Just a sound similar to what we make when we say we’re laughing? Because, according to that, we can program a computer to laugh. So maybe when we talk about laughter we mean that sound with a cause and a mood concrete. This concept also has its problems, but for now it allows us to understand why some scientists quickly ruled out that animals could laugh.
The problem with this approach is that it becomes difficult to refute, because we cannot know for sure what motivates laughter in an animal, whose mind remains quite inaccessible to us. What we can do, in any case, is look for certain tendency between the situation that an animal is experiencing and the moments in which they “laugh”. Let’s use this to deal with the case of hyenas, for example. We have known for some time that these mammals do not laugh with joy, precisely, but rather when faced with negative emotions. Laughter usually arises in frustrating situations, when the safety of the pack or an individual is at risk.
Actually, we know that we are not even talking about a laugh, but about a dozen different vocalizations that they use to communicate. The social structure of hyenas is very complex, and thanks to these messages they can establish hierarchies, ask for help and claim their territory, for example. For some the cause and the spirit of this laughter are not would match with human laughter, and therefore we should not consider hyenas to actually laugh. But we must not forget that, even among us, there is nervous laughter. It is also aroused by negative emotions and although it does not intend communication as complex as hyenas seem to have, we all understand what it means, so it continues to serve a communicative function.
Another borderline case is that of tickling. Because, of course, they are capable of arousing a laugh and it turns out that it is present in rats. Many animals feel tickled or, at least, tickled, but until recently we did not know of cases of animals that manifested these tickles by laughing. The reason is that some laugh in ultrasound. In 2016, after recording some rats during several tickling sessions, a group of researchers He found some strange frequencies that made them audible to humans: they were rodent laughs. In any case, the scientific community is cautious, and knowing the controversy that these traditionally so human terms arouse, they decided to call those little screams: paroxysm of ultrasonic screams.
There will be those who object that this sound is not a laugh either, because tickling does not have the depth that humor or complicity have. They are somewhat more mechanical and perhaps even closer to stress than enjoyment. They are somewhat right, although the last point is not entirely correct. For some individuals, tickling is unpleasant, even when it makes them laugh, but not everyone experiences this stress. In both humans and rats, it has been seen that the more exposed we are to tickling when young, the more receptive we are to them as adults, experiencing a pleasant dimension and, therefore, getting a little closer to the traditional concept of laughing.
We could expand the list by talking about confused laughter as a sound, in general. There are animals that live with a permanent smile for anatomical reasons, such as dolphins, condemned to seem happy even under the most pitiful crowded conditions. To the other On one side we find animals like our relatives, the great apes or dogs, who smile to show their powerful canines and indicate the opposite of what we want to express with our smile. In fact, it is considered that there are more than 70 animals capable of laughing or, at least, simulating a laugh before our eyes. Although without being able to enter their mind, we can’t be sure if they have a sense of humor.
Because, although laughter is quite general for all human communities, the mood that awakens it changes almost completely. We don’t like what made our grandparents laugh and Central European humor seems ridiculously childish to us. If we move further away and talk about the humor of the ancient Egyptians, we will hardly distinguish it from a scatologically provocative comment and hardly recognize a “joke” told by an Inuit. And, if it is so different between humans, it will be even more difficult to identify humor in other species. We must then move away from blunt statements, such as that no other animals laughs or, at the opposite polemic of the polemic, that all mammals have some form of humor.
Why do we laugh?
Only then, taking into account this context, where we are in the animal world and the limitations we have in being able to define laughter, can we ask ourselves where our laughter comes from. We cannot know for sure, but there are speculations quite plausible. For example, we know that apes emit air blows during their playful activities, to indicate that everything is in order and to defuse possible conflicts. It fulfills, therefore, a double function. On the one hand, communicating a state of well-being and, secondly, spreading it to regulate the social relations of the groups. It is not unreasonable to think that our laughter is a evolution of that sound, neither better nor worse, but different and focused on more humane and “sophisticated” purposes. And here comes the final twist, because if we accept the latter, then we will have to recognize that there is at least one other group of animal species capable of laughing for the same evolutionary reason as us: the great primates.
DON’T GET IT:
- For the sake of discussion, we have accepted the definitional problem that (for some) exists with the concept of laughter. However, we have to keep in mind that it is not the first time that a concept has been forced to be redefined to the point of ridicule just so that humans can maintain our monopoly. It happens frequently with the concept of “intelligence”, which we have adapted to exclude behaviors of other animals that would put at risk our supposed exclusivity as beings of a superior rationality. We have done the same with intelligence applied to the behavior of some machines and it is difficult for us to recognize that human beings have instincts like any other animal. This vision of superiority is not scientific, but historically we have used science to justify our biases.
- Osterath, B. (2016) “Playful rats reveal brain region that drives ticklishness,” Nature [Preprint]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2016.20973.
- Winkler, SL and Bryant, GA (2021) “Play vocalisations and human laughter: A comparative review,” Bioacoustics, 30(5), p. 499–526. Available at: