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Contagious Laughter

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We travel across the ocean and back to the year 1962, to a girl's boarding school on the outskirts of a rural village in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), where an epidemic of contagious laughter broke out. Producer Ellen Horne investigates and her search for an explanation brings us back to the idea that laughter is social mechanism that responds to more than comedy...communicates more than mere merriment.
Special thanks to Christian Hempelmann for his work on this subject.

Comments [24]

Ben Tyner from Lincoln, NE

This best comparison to this would be epidemics of 'Dancing Mania' described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dancing_mania. Similar explanations dominate.

Apr. 22 2013 10:07 PM

I hate to 'waste' a comment that I should be making about the program, but I agree with James Jackson above, radio is becoming more and more difficult to listen to because of the vocal affectation James points to in his comment. Sometimes I think Ira Glass began this years ago and now it has become systemic. Almost inaudible at times, I think it may have been originally thought of as 'laid back' or more credible, but to me it sounds, well, stoned.
But I love the show so please don't stop on my account!

Apr. 14 2013 12:09 PM
James Jackson from los angeles

As facinating as the piece was I was too distracted by the narrators "vocal fry" to listen to the whole program.This gutteral death rattle that all women seem to be fond of may be forgiven in teens "too cool for school" or throat cancer victims, but broadcasters!!Are they trying to sound like men? Please do your next piece on the epidemic affectation of "vocal fry" or "croaking",look it up,and please do it in your natural god given voice.

Apr. 13 2013 07:46 PM
Jim Hall

In other phenomenological studies see: "Holy laughter" and The Toronto Blessing.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toronto_Blessing

Apr. 13 2013 05:32 PM
Peter from Mozambique

When I was serving in Peace Corps, I was going through a rough stretch, very stressed, and I was extremely serious for several months.

I realized I hadn't laughed in months when, on two separate occasions, I WOKE MYSELF UP LAUGHING! I assumed, like was also concluded about the girl, that I wasn't free (from stress / culture shock / frustrations).

For my own personal sanity, I have realized that I subconsciously caused myself to laugh.

Maybe happy / humorous people living in very stressful conditions force themselves to laugh subconsciously for their own sanity.

Jul. 28 2012 02:31 AM
jason from Princeton, NJ

I'm a bit late in finding this episode, but I very much enjoyed it. I am researching the East African Revival, which spread throughout Uganda, Rwanda-Burundi, the eastern Congo, Tanganyika, Kenya, and the Sudan from the early 1930s onwards. Interestingly, missionaries at mission stations in this same part of north western Tanzania reported laughing episodes (along with other behaviors described as making animal noises and related "fits of hysteria") that were manifested when revival preaching teams of African Christians arrived on their stations. This, however, was in the early 1940s. The laughing seems to have been rather confined to the areas close to Lake Victoria and I'm not aware of laughing being a notable feature of the revival elsewhere in eastern Africa.

Dec. 08 2011 07:46 PM
Sonya

It's too bad this Anderson Cooper laughing fit incident (the Gerard Depardieu Ridiculist episode of Anderson Cooper 360) didn't happen before this podcast was produced. I'm pretty sure he went into his laughing fit because his crew was cracking up off camera (audibly). Additionally, the video went viral after the show aired meaning people who don't even watch 360 were getting a good hard chuckle for days afterwards. It's not exactly a subway train car full of people laughing but it's an interesting dynamic none the less.

Anyway, this is one of my favorite podcasts and this episode is one of my favorites. Thanks for putting such hard work into producing these.

Aug. 24 2011 02:39 AM
MJB

Laughter of this sort (uncontrollable, lasting for days, making one take off one's clothes, etc) is brought about by a spirit. There is no logical human explination for it.

May. 24 2011 10:15 AM
Aaron Birk

Does anyone else see this?

The Tanzania story sounds eerily similar to the Salem Witch episodes of 1692 Massachusetts, during which dozens of school girls errupted in uncontrollable laughter. Maybe they had the same "sickness"

May. 10 2011 09:43 PM
Max from Oakland, CA

Great show, but i was surprised you did not make the connection between those girls and the girls of the Salem Witch Trials. The comparison seems pretty stark. Girls laughing, talking nonsense and pulling at their skin.

And i was told that the girls in Salem were afflicted with ergot poisoning which is akin to LSD. This makes sense to me as the description of their behavior reminded me of many a Saturday night in highschool! Furthermore, i believe LSD at least, is undetectable without a spinal tap which i doubt was taken from the laughing girls.

thanks again-
max

Mar. 24 2010 08:40 PM
Lisa from Vancouver, BC

This totally reminded me of something from when I was younger.

My sister and I were quite young (I remember it taking place for me between ages 7-9, and my sister was between 5-7), we would go through these periods where we would just laugh. It seemed to always happen around the same time of year, and (this is silly) we called them "The Giggly-Goo's". There was a song that went with it, and part of it was "The Giggly-Goo's come once a year" (I have seriously never told this to anyone else before.) And it was true. Around the same time of year, generally just as Spring was starting, we would have one day, or a couple of days, where we just laughed. And laughed, and laughed and laughed. Hysterically, crying, wheezing, almost painful, laughter. I can't even remember if there was something specific that started it, we just started laughing one day and couldn't start.

So addicted to this feeling, we tried to start it up on our own, during other times of the year. I would giggle, she would giggle louder. But it never took on quite the same quality. It would come out of no where once a year, and then kind of just ebb away.

It's been a long time since we've both had that kind of in-sync laughter, and now that I'm reminded of it, I miss it.

Mar. 04 2010 03:29 AM
BradyDale from Philadelphia. PA

You may be right that laughter is contagious, but that laughing box experiment doesn't prove it. The researcher is totally wrong in saying that there is "no joke" involved in that experiment. Turning that box on and letting the laughter come out IS a joke, and a pretty good one.
A joke is, effectively, a pleasant surprise. You create an expectation in the listener of closing with one thing and then you surprise them by closing with something else. Usually, the funniest jokes have punchlines that the listener "should have seen coming."
If you take a researcher and have him give some random people some psycho babble about laughter, it all sounds very boring, but interesting. And then if he says, "Now I need to do an experiment with this device." They expect some sort of sciency wonk-out, but if they just get recorded hysterics, that's surprising and, well, funny.
It's a joke.
The very nature of jokes taking advantage of surprise is why the "Why did the Chicken cross the road joke?" is still the greatest joke of all time, even if no one thinks it's funny anymore:
http://www.thistoowillpass.com/bradydale/wordpress/?p=687

Aug. 13 2009 07:27 AM
Ellen Horne from Radio Lab

Toni - you must have misunderstood Gertrude's words. She didn't say that they 'eating drugs!' she said that they were BEATING DRUMS.

Her accent is thick, I know, but I spent many, many hours with her and got used to it a little, I guess.

Like you, I did wonder whether there was some sort of toxin or hallucinogen at the root of this epidemic -- frankly I was hoping to find that there was exposure to a fungus which might explain this strange behavior-- but nothing in that line of questioning actually panned out.

Jun. 06 2008 03:50 PM
toni from chapel hill, nc

always a fan of radiolab, i only recently listened to february's laughter podcast.

a question for ellen on the contagious laughter piece: did the then-six-year-old woman's comments about the revolution and about villagers' "eating drugs" pique your interest at all?

i immediately thought of the classic epidemiology story of john snow and the cholera outbreak via well water. i am, obviously, not familiar with the wastewater systems of the laughter-afflicted villages, (nor am i familiar with the half-life of drugs in water) but could laughter-inducing hallucinogenic drugs have made their way into the water supply (from human excrement)?

loving radiolab,
toni

Apr. 27 2008 05:24 PM
Charles Platter from Athens, Georgia

The section on contagious laughter was interesting. I would like to know how it compares to other outbreaks of public hysteria that are not a manifestation of laughter.

Here is an amusing example which, to judge from your upcoming shows, I might have saved for the episode on popular music. I cannot vouch for its truthfulness:

The satirist Lucian of Samosata recounts at the beginning of his essay "How to Write History" an incident that took place in Abdera where the entire population experienced various symptoms of illness, which, after a number of days, resolved into a mania for the tragic playwright Euripides. We are told that the entire population went around singing the choruses from his play "Andromeda," and that the strange behavior continued until winter.

Chuck

Mar. 31 2008 02:40 PM
Greta from Brooklyn NY

Thanks for this fascinating story.

While I appreciate the conclusion that teenage girl laughter is a way of expressing anxiety and/or of exerting a kind of power, I think it is also possible that, in fact, there was a grand joke to be found in this situation --

Kafka famously believed that everything he wrote was hilarious. I think these girls might be laughing at a very Kafka-like joke: the ridiculousness of the trappings of authority in a culture that has experienced great social, political, and religious upheaval.

The codes of discipline and behavior in an institutional context such as a school (in the best of times they can seem a bit ridiculous) must have seemed very silly in the face of the hyper-reality of these girls' life experience.

Thanks for your great work,
Greta

Mar. 23 2008 05:54 PM
Toby from Boston MA

Aspects of "Contagious Laughter" seemed familiar: It's the early nineteen sixties; girls are negotiating their sexuality in a nation undergoing upheaval; and they are helplessly and contagiously overcome by the need to laugh and cry and scream in a way that blurs the lines between despair and ecstasy.

If I hadn't known it was about Tanzania I would have sworn it was about Beatlemania.

Mar. 15 2008 03:35 PM
Andrea from New York, NY


A weird laughter story:
I was visiting Montreal for a long weekend in May of 2003 when I stumbled upon a "laughing club": it was a group of about thirty people in the center of a large plaza on the hill in the park overlooking downtown Montreal. I believe it was a Saturday morning.
The people in the group were walking around in circles and laughing (at? with? to?) each other for no apparent reason. There were different types of laughs: for example a laugh performed with palms open and fingers splayed out, and a laugh when they pretended to be talking on cell phones. There were one or two people with video cameras ducking in and out of the crowd, filming at various angles. At one point someone called out "Why are you laughing?" To which the unanimous answer was "Hahahahaha!" I think it ended with everyone forming a circle and moving towards the middle with a big Whoop! ing laugh.

I asked an onlooker what the hell was going on and he told me it was a Laughing Club, people who got together to laugh because laughing was good for your health. He said it was an international phenomenon, and one of the major local news networks had covered the event earlier that morning.

International phenom or not, this was the first and last time I ever heard of a laughing club. It certainly contributed to my impression of Montreal as a rather jovial city.

Mar. 11 2008 05:16 PM
Jeff from West Covina, CA

Thank you for another great Radio Lab episode!

One thing I was a little surprised at was when Robert said people don't laugh when alone. I laugh often when by myself - an odd thought, a funny memory, or a clumsy mis-hap. The guest researcher said media doesn't count because those are "vicarious social stimulus", but if you take away the things we laugh at then of course it's harder to get in the mood to laugh.

Laughter may be part of our social interaction, but I think laughter is rooted in playfulness. Being in a playful mood will make us laugh at things that aren't jokes, and not being in a playful mood will stop someone from laughing even at the funniest joke in the world. Although it might be harder for "mature" adults to be in a playful mood when alone, I'm quite sure it's possible.

Jeff

Another interesting article on laughter:
http://www.damninteresting.com/?p=938

Mar. 05 2008 07:11 PM
Nils Vik from Winnipeg, MB

Great episode.

I was a little surprised that the "Holy Laughter" phenomenon within charismatic evangelical christian circles was not mentioned.

Excited about the new season,

Nils

Mar. 04 2008 10:47 PM
Nathan Rosquist from Seattle, WA

Katrine,

I can certainly empathize; I often have spontaneous outbursts of laughter while meditating (even alone)...

Fantastic episode. Fantastic program!

Nathan

Mar. 01 2008 01:48 AM
Karine Landgren from Chicago, IL

I would like to comment that this contagious laughter segment was so fascinating, especially because I have had an experience of it myself. As an American woman (I was 23yrs old) at a meditation retreat in India...I...and several others became "afflicted" with a bout of laughter that lasted for several days and was severe enough that we had to seek counsel from the monks/nuns at the retreat center for it. I had pinch marks up and down my arm from trying to contain the laughter. Morning, noon, and night this happened. I would say that were was some sense of "freedom" (of an unspecified kind) that was involved. I can pinpoint the moment it started.

What a wonderful program...thank you for continuing to produce such fascinating programming.

Feb. 22 2008 03:56 PM
Ellen Horne from Radiolab

David,

Look for the show audio for this episode after Feb 22nd - when this episode airs on WNYC. It'll be podcast shortly thereafter.

Glad to hear your wife recommended it!

Ellen from
Radiolab

Feb. 04 2008 04:53 PM
David Alexander from Oakland, California

My wife recommended this show to me, but I don't see a way to actually hear it. I just see links to various related sites.

Is there a way to hear the entire radio show?

Thanks,
David

Feb. 04 2008 03:40 PM

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