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.
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