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Six Degrees of Separation

Tuesday, February 05, 2008 - 06:21 PM

For our upcoming episode on Laughter, we kept coming across references to a 1962 epidemic of contagious laughter in Tanzania. But every scholarly article, every newspaper reference, every mention we found, seemed to just point back to the source - a 1963 article from a medical journal.

As it would happen, I was planning to be in Tanzania in June. Back in 2005, Radiolab had gotten involved with the TED Conference - Jad hosts their audio podcast, and they've brought me or one of our interns to come record the conference a few times. Since I was planning to travel to Tanzania for the June 2007 TED Global conference, we thought, hey, why don't I spend a couple of days poking around to see if I can figure out what happened in 1962?

But where to begin?

With only a few days to turn up people who remember a laughter epidemic in a remote village in Western Tanzania in 1962, how would I find an eyewitness?


I sent a note out to about 200 people. And my email made it's way from Radiolab contributor Laura Starcheski, to her friend Erin, to someone at the World Bank, to someone who works in Bukoba, TZ, to a man named Kurt who lives in Nshamba, TZ and Kurt asked around his office and, voila, we found Gertrude. By my count, that's 6 degrees. (On The Media talked about this phenomena today and noted that the results of the classic Stanley Milgrim experiment have been upheld over and over again.)

Gertrude was herself afflicted with the laughter epidemic in 1962 and when I finally got to meet her, she introduce me to a traditional healer, Mr. Sospita, pictured with me above, who treated her. I wrote about the adventure he had in getting to me over here.


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Comments [4]

Dino DiArtist

I am the author of the Unified Humor Theory, which, stated briefly, includes the following theses:

Human laughter (HL) resembles animal vocalizations in that it is emotive, semi-involuntary and non-verbal.

Human laughter evolved from the primate playface vocalization (PFV), which, as Dr Provine documents is identical to HL in many respects, except that PFV is inhale/exhale, while HL is exhale only. The simplest explanation for this difference is that HL is an aquatic adaptation. (See Elaine Morgan's Aquatic Ape Theory) I have shown that it is possible for humans to laugh underwater.

All humor and provocation of laughter consists of stimulation to a level near the threshhold of tolerance. Tickle too soft, the baby is bored. Tickle just enough, the baby laughs. Tickle too hard the baby cries. For more analysis, read "Conflict Arousal and Curiosity" by Dr. Daniel E Berlyne, McGraw Hill 1960

Anyone interested in discussing the science of humor and laughter should contact me, Dino DiArtist through my website:

Thank you!

Feb. 08 2008 10:46 AM
Jerad Riggin

Need. New. Radiolab. NOW.

Feb. 08 2008 12:21 AM
Ellen Horne

Thanks for the spell-check! Always welcome. We are, after all, radio people. Or maybe we should try to start a new trend of injecting the names of string instruments into conversation. "I was late to work anyway when, cello, the bus broke down!"

Feb. 07 2008 08:11 AM

Hello, I love Radio Lab and can't wait for all of you to return with season 4! Right now I'm just posting to request a correction to your typo -- "viola" should be "voila!"



Feb. 06 2008 05:43 PM

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