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How Does Laughing Affect Us?

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In this segment, we explore the rise and fall of a group of professional laughers hired to laugh for money on Fran Drescher's show "The Nanny." Then JoAnne Bachorowski, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, says that giggling girls have more power than you think. She studies the sound of laughter, and explains how we use laughter to manipulate other people, or, says Barry Sanders, to make ourselves feel safe.


JoAnne Bachorowski and Barry Sanders

Comments [32]

Harry Pearle from Rochester NY

Wonderful ideas. Perhaps laughter gives us a sense of self-control, a kind of NOISE MAKING that frees us from RIGIDITY and domination.

I think it might be useful to add more laughter in SCHOOLS... THANKS HPearle

Nov. 13 2016 10:02 PM
Alexa Drubay from Media, PA

Come laugh with me at my FREE Laughter Yoga Clubs in Media, PA outside of Philly and I will lead you through some de-stressing and up-lifting laughter exercises. You will be astounded by how much you will laugh in an hour, without any jokes or comedy.

Nov. 13 2016 07:54 PM
Celeste Magers from Arlington Heights Illinois

We can all be professional laughers! All over the world, there are thousands of Laughter Yoga groups which meet solely for the purpose of laughing together for our mental and physical health. I lead one of these groups in a suburb of Chicago Illinois. Look for one in your area, or start one yourself. We don't use humor or tell stories. Just like the professional laughers in your segment, we choose to laugh, and we use the social reinforcement of the group interaction to keep the laughter going.

Nov. 13 2016 01:49 PM
Lamont from New York City

About 40 years ago I worked on a comedy record for which laughs were to inserted. Professional laughers were hired in New York City. I still have a copy of those laughs and they sound exactly like the ones from LA.

Sep. 21 2014 12:00 PM

Jad just said the high note of some woman's laughter was even higher than the operatic excerpt he played. no, it wasn't. not even close. i've heard a number of questionable things on this broadcast, particularly in the "explanations" of the history of certain sounds.

Sep. 20 2014 12:41 PM
Thomas from My ole Kentucky home

This is a wonderful example of laughter causing other folks to laugh.
I'm surprised radiolab didn't air it.

Apr. 15 2013 01:15 AM
gavin from charlotte

I work as as a car wash. laughter is the best way to make the custumer buy the better was lol sorry about my spelling lol

Apr. 12 2013 08:44 PM
Omayma El Euchi from Belgrade, Serbia

It really helped me with my project!

Feb. 20 2013 08:48 AM
jp'n'MA from cambridge, massachusetts

"How does laughing effect us?" !!
Come on GUYS!!!! AFFECT, of course.
I'm not an English major, but that doesn't prevent
my ears from "pinging'" or my eyes from "smarting"
at such poor word choices.
That's not poor spelling; that's using the wrong word.

Sep. 08 2012 04:01 PM
Jordan Balagot from Chicago

Sorry I meant to comment the last one for the musical language episode. The segment I'm talking about is here:

Jun. 23 2008 12:36 AM
Jordan Balagot from Chicago

I love your sound design but the pitches in the perfect pitch section were all wrong!
The horn's pitches were G# and B, making it an E major or Ab minor chord.
The church bells were alternating between Db and Eb.
The faucet drip hit an Ab and a Bb a 9th higher.
I don't have perfect pitch but could tell something was off from the church bells. I do music transcriptions so I obsess about this type of stuff:

Jun. 23 2008 12:29 AM
Jordan Balagot from Chicago

I enjoyed this segment on laughter but I had to point out that the highest note in the girl's laughter is not higher than the 'unsingable' Queen of the Night aria. Her laugh peaks at a C#5 and the singer in the clip you played hits an F5, a major third higher.

Jun. 23 2008 12:24 AM
Jennifer Schrader from Maryland, USA

When I was a teenager, I had a very hyperventilating-style laugh. My older brothers made relentless fun of me for it, and I was terribly unpopular at school, so it occurred to me that, if I changed my laugh, that might help change my image. So I deliberately changed the way I laughed. I went out of my way to laugh out loud (rather than by rapidly breathing in and out of my nose, which was my natural method), and I chose to laugh in warm, mid-range tones. My notion (not really conscious) was that mid-range tones conveyed warmth and confidence. I'm in my 40's now, and that mid-range laugh is my real laugh. And not only do I think it really did make people see me as more confident and less vulnerable, it actually also made *me* more confident and less vulnerable, even though I knew it was a laugh I had invented myself.

Apr. 06 2008 06:48 PM
Ethan from Dallas, TX

I was definitely more bothered by Professor Sanders’s section than I was by the professional laughers. I thought, at the very least, that the professional laughers section highlighted the contagious nature of laughter, even when the stimulus is faked. This is one reason why I have a hard time reconciling Sanders’s assertion that laughter is a defense mechanism or a safety blanket. It seems to me that the phenomenon of contagious laughter (as all of us must’ve experienced with babies' laughter) illustrates the societal and not merely personal benefit of laughter. Further, I laugh, on a regular basis, when I am alone and away from media stimulus, and I definitely don’t always feel safer. Of course, laughing with/at/to myself could just be the burgeoning stages of schizophrenia…

Apr. 01 2008 11:03 AM
Alan Evil from Kentucky

I was watching the first episode of Robot Chicken last fall and found that I was unable to watch the end because of laughter. Even thinking about the part that did me in (it was a stop action animation "blooper" segment from Battlestar Galactica featuring Cylons falling down) brought me to tears and the laughter made my ribs ache. I think I'll watch it again...

Mar. 31 2008 08:18 PM

I definitely laugh out loud when I'm alone. I think of funny things and laugh about them ....

Mar. 30 2008 01:02 PM
Kristen from South St. Paul, MN

If you're off kilter, Liz, then you have company...!
I, too, laugh when I'm alone--pretty often, really. Sometimes it's in response to a book or the radio, but as often as not I'm just laughing at myself or even at a funny thought or memory.

Which leads me to wonder: if the television and radio can be considered "social" situations, and if we truly only laugh in social situations...then if I laugh when I'm by myself, is it because my brain is convincing itself that there's actually someone else there? I mean, I talk to myself--come on, we all do, we just don't always admit it!--so maybe my brain just figures that whoever it is I'm talking to is companion enough to share the joke with, too.

...Yeah, that makes me sound crazy.

Mar. 30 2008 02:28 AM
clickykbd from Austin, Texas

A silly question that just popped to mind. Jokes may lose their funny the more you hear them, but sometimes they don't. And sometimes the same thing will make you laugh no matter how many times it happens (thinking of one thing my cat does). What is funnier? The thing we think is funny, or the memory of the first time it was funny? Both would evoke laughter, but I bet the brain activity differs drastically.

Mar. 29 2008 03:41 AM
Stephanie from SF Bay Area (Oakland, to be exact)

I laugh while alone all the time. I see a funny sign, and I laugh. I have a funny thought and I laugh. I laugh at books I'm reading. Sometimes I laugh when I get nervous about something, even if I'm alone. And for some reason, I always laugh when I see funny painted houses, like the one down the street with blue shingles and orange moulding.

Mar. 28 2008 12:26 PM
Liz from New York, NY

I just wanted to say that, while we humans sometimes use laughter to manipulate or make ourselves blend in with others, I disagree that that's mostly the case. I laugh a lot. Sometimes it's because I hear someone else laugh, sometimes it's because of a joke, sometimes to let others know I am joking or to just lighten up a room. But sometimes - by myself - I laugh. I laugh at my dog, or myself. No one is around, no tv or other stimulus. Today, I was baking with chocolate and it ended up all over my face and when I saw my reflection, I cracked up. Maybe it is a societal construct, or maybe I'm off kilter, but I laugh even when no one can hear me.

Mar. 21 2008 01:47 AM
Ryan from Brooklyn

I agree with Steven. I thought the show was great, except for the professional laughter segment. I don't think it added anything to our understanding of this human behavior. In fact, I think it didn't add anything. I'm sorry to nitpick, I just expect every Radio Lab segment to achieve near perfection.

Mar. 11 2008 12:38 PM
Steven Froehlich

I love the show, but the piece about the professional laughers was perhaps the most disappointing segment. I think most intelligent TV viewers know that there has been canned laughter for almost as long as there have been situation comedies. Even those that are “filmed before a live audience” are boosted for laughter. Woody Allen effectively parodied this phenomenon over 30 years ago in Annie Hall. The interesting point that Allen made – that you didn’t emphasize – is that if we hear others laughing, we will think that what we’re watching is funny, even if it’s just dreck.
That Hollywood now uses “professional laughers” rather than a laugh track makes me wonder whether their quality of laughter is superior to the computer-generated variety, or whether editing is a more expensive process that hiring these “extras”. It would have interesting to hear from someone who actually worked on these shows as directors or editors.

Mar. 11 2008 10:10 AM
Jen from Richmond, VA


Each of these self-corrections improves the mind's ability to predict the immediate future, and laughing aloud encourages other members of the social group to take note of the unexpected congruence. Once the new pattern is incorporated into the psyche, subsequent exposures to similar patterns will not be surprising, which explains why jokes are only funny the first time around. The importance of timing in humor can also be deduced in this model, since the mind needs a moment to process the setup, but should not be given sufficient time to resolve the incongruence on its own. Another aspect of the incongruence theory is that humor is a demonstration of one's intelligence and problem-solving proficiency, and therefore it plays a role in social order...."

-article by Allan Bellows, "Humoring the Gelotologists"

Mar. 06 2008 10:19 AM
Jen from Richmond, VA

To all Radio Lab fans,
If the Laughter episode really interested you- you may be interested to know that some people theorize that the reason we laugh is based on the "incongruence theory." Here is an excerpt:
"One prevailing theory states that humor is a learning mechanism which detects and corrects incongruence between expectations and reality...Essentially, the incongruence theory of humor suggests that an event registers as "funny" when it starts out by conforming to established patterns, but then defies the person's model of reality by taking an unanticipated but logically valid detour...In a similar way, humor can occur when a nonsensical sequence suddenly reveals an underlying coherence...According to this theory, the endorphin payoff encourages brains to seek out and store alternate logical patterns, such as those revealed in jokes, puns, syllable-transposing spoonerisms ("bowel feast" instead of "foul beast"), and Freudian slips....(cont'd)"

Mar. 06 2008 10:18 AM
Jen from Richmond, VA

I understand how you feel a little unsettled... but the sooner you realize that --if it can be made into business, it will be-- the better. Similar to peasants being paid to weep at funerals in the fifteenth century, no?

and Robert,
You're AWESOME. Relish my word choice.

and Jad,
you should come out with a lullaby and/or newage relaxation album. You could pretty much just read the phone book with loons and a forest stream in the background.

Mar. 06 2008 10:14 AM
adrien from New York

Anyone get turned off upon hearing the recorded laughs of the "professional laughers"? Up until that point when there were recordings of genuine laughter on the show I couldn't help but chuckle along or at least smile. But the laughs of the "professional laughers" disturbed me, and the group recordings full on made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Just curious if anyone else felt a similar reaction?

Mar. 03 2008 05:13 PM
Phyllis Buckwalter from St. Paul MN

This show would have been a lot better if you had just played the whole tape of Nichols and May.

Mar. 03 2008 05:02 PM
David Stephens from Durham, NC

Too bad you didn't cover "laughing in the spirit" as known in pentecostal/charismatic churches. This is a phenomenon I have experienced in a spiritually charged atmosphere.

If the events in Africa were caused by "independence", then there may be some relationship of "laughing in the spirit" with the freedom of worship experienced in an atmosphere of unrestricted praise of God.

Mar. 03 2008 09:50 AM
Clay from Maitland, FL

Must be a midwest thing.

Feb. 29 2008 01:31 AM
Margaret from Grand Rapids, Michigan

Thank heavens other people noticed the affect/effect disparity.

Feb. 17 2008 08:19 PM
Robert from Minneapolis

Thanks, Grace! I was about to post the same thing! (Former English major here.) I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. And I apologize for the sentence fragment above. And for beginning a sentence with a conjunction. And, well, you get it. . .

Feb. 10 2008 09:10 PM
Grace from Chicago

Just a quick spelling correction. I think it should be "How does laughing affect us?" (Affect, rather than Effect). (Sorry, I'm an English Major).

Feb. 10 2008 02:04 AM

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