Why is laughter so contagious?

“We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.”

– William James

Why do we pick up the emotions of others with such ease? It appears that emotions can be highly contagious. For instance, one person’s laughter is immediately transferred to another person. The reason may be that powerful emotions synchronize the brain activity of different people as researched by Finland’s Aalto University and Turku PET Centre.

When we look at other people smiling or laughing a corresponding emotional response is often triggered in us.

This could be a basic element of social interaction: synching a shared natural emotional state in all members of a group whose brains process what they experience in the environment around them in a similar way.

The study calculated brain activity in people through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were watching short uplifting and unpleasant films. They discovered that powerful and negative emotions synchronized the subjects’ emotion processing networks in the frontal and midline regions of the brain while strongly arousing films synchronized brain activities supporting the networks of vision, attention, sense, and touch.

Adjunct Professor Lauri Nummenmaa of Aalto University had this to say:

“Sharing others’ emotional states provides the observers a somatosensory and neural framework that facilitates understanding others’ intentions and actions and allows to ‘tune in’ or ‘sync’ with them. Such automatic tuning facilitates social interaction and group processes.

The results have major implications for current neural models of human emotions and group behaviour, but also deepen our understanding of mental disorders involving abnormal socioemotional processing.”

Contagious Laughter

The research can perhaps be compared to another study at the University College (UCL) and Imperial College London which revealed a possible mechanism for contagious laughter. Positive sounds such as laughter elicit a response in the area of a person’s brain activated when we smile as if preparing facial muscles to laugh.

Here is an example given in the study:

“Cricket commentator Jonathan Agnew’s description of Ian Botham’s freak dismissal, falling over his own stumps ‘he couldn’t quite get his leg over’ was all it took to send himself and the late Brian Johnston into paroxysms of laughter.”

Senior research fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Doctor Sophie Scott said the following:

“It seems that it’s absolutely true that ‘laugh and the whole world laughs with you’. We’ve known for some time now that when we are talking to someone, we often mirror their behaviour, copying the words they use and mimicking their gestures. Now we’ve shown that the same appears to apply to laughter, too – at least at the level of the brain.”

Test subjects were given to listen to different sounds while measuring their brain responses through fMRI. Some of the sounds were positive, for instance, the sounds of laughter or triumph. Others were negative, such as retching or screaming. All of the sounds triggered a response in the brain’s premotor cortical region, which readies facial muscles to respond accordingly. However, the people responded more to positive sounds, revealing that these were in fact more contagious than the negative ones.

The researchers believe this explains why we respond to laughing and cheering with an involuntary smile.

Sophie Scott stated:

“We usually encounter positive emotions, such as laughter or cheering, in group situations, whether watching a comedy programme with family or a football game with friends. This response in the brain, automatically priming us to smile or laugh, provides a way of mirroring the behaviour of others, something which helps us interact socially. It could play an important role in building strong bonds between individuals in a group.”

Can you recall when was the last time you fell victim to contagious laughter? Let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comments and please share this article if you enjoyed the read. 

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