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The Science of Laughing

Question: Are we the only species with a sense of humor?

Robert Mankoff: Well, actually when you look back along the mammalian chain you find laughter in rats when you tickle them. If you use the right sort of whatever transduces so you can hear the sounds; they have this little chirping, laughing sound that we know is pleasant because when we tickle them they will end up following our hands around. Of course if we tickle wrong though then they’ll end up biting our hands, and so it seems like play and the pleasure of something at least like laughter exists you know way, way down the chain there. In terms of chimpanzees and apes, they definitely have a form of humor. They too can be tickled, and they like it, and they also have a type of rough house play in which they run around. It sort of looks like aggression except they have what’s called a play phase, and the play phase in chimpanzees sort of looks like that. And then they pant in and out very, very fast which is different from our laughter which are these exhalations of ha, ha, ha, and so it’s an interesting combination of something that looks like aggression but that they have fun with. And we can see this also in children also. Children will run around and play like this. It would sort of look like fighting but it’s not, and many, many animals have this. We don’t know that dogs are laughing, but they obviously can be doing something that looks like fighting and but it’s fun, and that transfers all the way up really to people and adolescent males who will insult each other type of mock aggression to actually have fun and show that they’re friends. So we’re not the only species who have something like humor; something like this duality where something which would normally be unpleasant is funny like a cartoon of a guy who’s about to be guillotined, and the executioner has you know two baskets and he’s saying paper or plastic. Okay, this would seem like an unpleasant situation right, an execution, and we have lots of cartoons about that, so there’s the duality there. What chimps and apes don’t have of course is there’s never one person being funny for a lot of other people. They don’t have language, so all they can do basically is run around with one or maybe two people or they can tickle the other, but they can’t tickle many people. The way we have humor is it extends through language to in effect lots of people a lot of the time, and actually that’s sort of my job as a cartoonist.

Question: To what extent is humor a social interaction?

Robert Mankoff: Humor is social. That’s how it evolves. It evolves as way in primates to and we assume really going back to our own evolutionary ancestors, as a way to regulate emotions of fear and anger; sort of turn pleasure into pain really. Now it’s interesting how do you get the jokes from there, and I think I can explain that or at least speculate on it but essentially social. Even when we laugh at cartoons or jokes; it’s then pseudo social. The people in those cartoons; the people in those jokes are people. They’re not just objects, so humor is social. If I was to compress it you know and through like a psychological encapsulation; I would say it’s a social phenomenon. We laugh 30 or 40 times more with people and often at almost nothing than we do when we’re alone. It’s actually very, very rare for us to laugh alone. We will appreciate humor, but we won’t laugh at it. It’s some non-serious incongruities; something that’s sort of wrong but something’s okay. If you’re at a dinner table and someone accidentally turns something over; someone mispronounces a word; often we’ll sort of get things back to normal you know by laughing. Then there’s this emotion. You know we focus on laughter, but we forget there’s an emotion before laughter, and it’s called mirth. It’s the thing you feel before you laugh, and it’s the thing that you suppress when somebody farts in church, so that’s important and one of things is it’s been shown that the physiological changes that humor you know the supposedly healthful changes that humor brings about are due to this feeling of mirth. That’s what actually produces – the laughter is the expression, so you really see it as social just like anger and fear – social, occurs in a social situation. Something triggers it. You know and anger fear it’s something we’ll run away from and something we’ll fight. There’s a feeling of anger and fear, and then there’s a big expression. That expression – laughter and smiling tells us it’s social. Of course, why would you have this big expression you know unless you were communicating?

Question: What are the physiological benefits of humor?

Robert Mankoff: Well, you know it increases respiration. After heavy bouts of laughter, our blood pressured is lowered. In the brain itself, it’s really connected to pleasure just really like food and sex are; it’s a pleasurable response. You know we feel good when we laugh. We actually feel good. That’s the reinforcing part. Since laughter actually occurs often in some stressful situation and transforms the stress, it reduces stress, so you know it’s a stress reducer. I don’t want to overstate the case about its medical benefits. It can act in that way. It can act as a mild analgesic. Obviously, you feel better. In terms of actual longevity, it seems like people with really good sense of humor, jolly people, live a little shorter. They’re not so sober sighted serious that they’re reading every Jane Brody column on our diet and following it, and so you know they might not make it to 93 maybe just 87 but just have a lot better time doing it.

Recorded on:  September 21, 2009

Cartoonist Robert Mankoff has dedicated his career to understanding humor. He talks to Big Think about the science behind laughter and its importance to both humans and other animals.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

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Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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