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Is Laughter just a Human Thing?

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Aristotle thought that laughter is what separates us from the beasts, and that a baby does not have a SOUL, until the moment it laughs for the first time. Historian Barry Sanders, author of Sudden Glory, says that according to Aristotle, this moment of "human ensouling" is supposed to happen when a baby is 40 days old. We follow radio producer Amanda Aronczyk as she tests this theory on her newborn baby.
Then we go to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, to tickle rats with psychobiologist Dr. Jaak Panksepp. It's his notion that laughter is found all across the animal kindgom. Boom, Aristotle! Then Dr. Robert Provine, author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, shows us chimps who seem to be laughing. Boom Boom!
We also get the giggles with a bit of archival tape from comedians Elaine May and Mike Nichols. And Tyler Stillman, a psychologist at Florida State University, eloquently delineates the awesomeness of laughter.


Amanda Aronczyk, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, Dr. Robert Provine, Barry Sanders and Tyler Stillman

Comments [45]

Sue from Brockton, MA

This is the first thing I thought of when the question was raised about humans being the only creature that laughs:

Nov. 14 2016 10:25 PM
Jim from Tempe, AZ

Chimps are not our ancestors! They are close relatives who share with us in the recent past (~5 Mya) a common ancestor. Science interest shows need to be very precise about these descriptions, especially given how quick creationists are to ridicule the theory and facts of evolution.

Nov. 13 2016 03:25 PM
Casey from Baltimore

The idea that chimps alert others about their play by laughing is a fascinating idea. Rough-housing with my son, I can attest that we both laugh, squeal at times with glee. That way Mommy is safe knowing everything is okay. But there have been times in my life when my “playing” with another was not reciprocated – when I may have been laughing but they were not or vice versa, as happens with older and younger siblings. Particularly, I wanted to note when doling out the “play” fisticuffs, how badly I felt when the other did not laugh in response. As compassionate as a adolescent can be, I would cut off my “play.” What gratified me was the laughter. But with that missing, I felt the violation of that “play.”

Nov. 14 2014 03:43 PM
Jennifer from St Paul

I just heard the comment on the show about humans not laughing alone. I'm an only child, and I have almost always laughed alone, maybe because I end up using myself as my own company, historically. I wonder if mice laugh alone also, ever, in the observation of their laughter?

Sep. 20 2014 03:23 PM
Deb Lewis from Charlotte, NC

This was a great show and I started thinking about what if a child never laughs does that mean something is missing and a doctor needs to be consulted... Or does every baby eventually laugh? By something missing I mean a gene...

Sep. 19 2014 10:34 PM
Sharon from Wisconsin

We have a ringneck dove who coos and laughs, laughing is part of their vocalization. I believe it is true laughter because she is very attached to my husband, and laughs when she sees him (a lot!) while she doesn't laugh too often for other people including me who is the person that feeds her and cleans her cage. The laughter sounds quite joyful.

Apr. 13 2013 07:29 PM
werush from uws

was anyone able to find a link to the Mike Nichols/Elaine May rehearsal?

Apr. 13 2013 03:30 PM
ellen from NYC

Similar to the woman whose dog repeated behavior when her owner laughed, my cat used to wake up and slowly climb out of my butterfly chair by lying on her back and pushing herself around in circles, each time pushing more of herself closer to the ground. I would laugh hysterically - she would stop, look at me a long while, and continue, faster. Each time I laughed she'd resume the activity with more and more glances over at me, going faster each time. It was a riot. She may not have been laughing, but she was sure enjoying herself!

Apr. 13 2013 12:29 PM
Carolita from NYC

My dog didn't laugh like "haha" but when she thought something was funny or disconcerting, she would get all happy and excited and sneeze repeatedly. I always took this pneumatic response to be a dog's equivalent to laughter.
My new dog has a different way of laughing. He breathes out a sort of silent "ha!", then chomps at us over his shoulder as he turns in a circle.

The common thing is the sudden expelling of air.

Maybe certain animals have to find alternative ways of expressing amusement and perplexity.

Apr. 13 2013 12:13 PM
gavin from charlotte

dogs cats and ferrets do it all the time

Apr. 12 2013 08:38 PM
joey counts

great job setting everything up

Apr. 09 2013 10:30 AM
David from San Francisco

What's the music at 21:45 and 39:30?

Mar. 20 2012 01:34 AM

The BBC website has more information about other animals and laughter studies.

Jan. 02 2012 03:35 AM
Steve from Remulac

I think the only feature that will prove to be truly unique to humans is the incessant (and pathetic) need to identify a feature that we share with no other creature. Guess what, we're animals! Let's get over ourselves.

Apr. 21 2010 12:46 AM
Alex Gtz from Ciudad juarez, Mexico

This show was awesome!

Oct. 21 2009 05:27 PM
Alia from Chapel Hill, NC

To those concerned about the rat being aggressively treated: I worked in a lab in undergrad where we studied aggression in rats. They have a couple distinct defensive and aggressive postures, none of which expose the rat's stomach. The professor seemed to be putting minimal pressure on the rat's abdomen as well.

After I left the job, the lab studied the sounds baby rats make, using equipment similar to that used by Dr. Panksepp. The baby rats make a screaming sound when they are hurt or hungry and it sounds nothing like the sounds made by the rat in this episode.

That rat was having a blast! Thinking about their lab serving as a rat playground and tickle emporium makes me happy.

Jul. 24 2009 10:35 AM
Gail Gurman from Tigard, OR

I laugh occasionally when I'm alone. In fact, I recently woke up laughing from a dream in which I thought of something funny. I don't remember now what it was, of course, but I'm pretty sure there was no pseudo-social aspect. I also don't think there's a pseudo-social aspect when I laugh at a funny video of talking cats on YouTube.

May. 09 2009 01:15 PM
Ashwin Budden from San Diego

Another aspect of the sociality of laughing that was not addressed was it's likely basis in a type of shame/shame-avoidance response; shame being a vital social emotion. Laughter often emerges after mild to moderately embarrassing scenarios to subdue the sense of unwanted or uncomfortable exposure or norm violation in social settings. Regarding cocktail parties with lots of laughs but few jokes (a point that was made in the piece by Dr. Provine) laughter helps to "smooth" interactions in which we are also compulsively self-conscious.
(hee hee har har)

Aug. 08 2008 02:39 PM
Jessie G from NYC

I honestly laugh alone all the time, but it's definitely not normal. I don't think.

Jul. 02 2008 03:22 PM
ratgirl from USA

It seems like the rat in the video was being played with very aggressively. I don't doubt that the rat was enjoying it as play, seeing how it bounced around just a little bit at the end. It's always pretty clear if a rat wants to play & if it is enjoying playing by watching its behavior, because a happy rat hops a little and makes motions to solicit you to play more.

I do doubt that the sounds you hear are laughter, though. How do you know the rat isn't just making "enough,enough" noises? Granted, an unhappy rat normally squeaks in the audible human range, but I suppose I'm a bit skeptical. I think having footage & audio of several rats playing might help.

May. 13 2008 11:45 PM
doggo from Chicagoland

I was a bit taken aback the vigorousness of the "tickling" too. But I guess if the rat isn't biting, it can't be too unpleasant for it.

On the aggression of laughter, I've said for a long time now "humor isn't funny". What I mean is, most jokes, and things that make us laugh, are at the expense of others. The misfortunes, shock, pratfalls, humiliation, and stupidity of others is the basis of most humor. The laughter from such is mostly of a "there, but for the grace of God, go I", and "it's funny 'cause that person's dumber than me".

And how much of laughter is a nervous reaction? You seen people who laugh, seemingly, inappropriately.

May. 13 2008 11:14 AM
Jennifer from Austin, TX

Oh my god, I love that Mephistopheles' laugh from "Faust" is included in this story. It was my favorite part of French class from senior year.

Apr. 30 2008 01:02 AM
Gary Loewenthal from Washington, DC

I'm not surprised that rats or other animals laugh. At a fairly incredible rate, scientists are confirming what many of us knew intuitively all along: Animals have rich and diverse emotional lives.

Some of my cat's games with me remind me of a human baby's first games: Scenarios that are just a little bit dangerous, but not really. Is that not elementary humor?

We're discovering all these abilities in animals. They have a broad spectrum of interests and ways in which they experience life. When will we start treating them better? For example, when will we stop creating billions of them each year just to kill them? Why aren't rats included in the meager protections of the Animal Welfare Act? Why do we treat complex sentient individuals as disposable commodities? Is it "might makes right?" If we haven't learned to treat animals with kindness and respect, what have we really learned?

Apr. 17 2008 03:17 PM
Jennifer Schrader from Maryland, USA

My dog certainly doesn't laugh, but I have no doubt that (a) she has a rich sense of humor, as do many other dogs, and (b) she interprets my laughter as a good, happy thing. She deliberately does things to get my attention, and if her antics make me start laughing, she knows she's getting somewhere, and her eyes twinkle and her tongue lolls and her tail wags, and it winds up being a feedback loop, where she acts goofier and I laugh harder. Obviously, people can debate what's going on in her head, but to me, who has known her for six years, it's obvious she's sharing in the joke.

Apr. 06 2008 07:14 PM
Rob Palmer from Vancouver

Apr. 06 2008 11:50 AM
Charles Platter from Athens, Georgia

Maybe this segment is on Radiolab's cutting room floor but I would have liked to have heard more about aggression.

There was some acknowledgement of the aggressive character of much laughter, but I think it could have been explored further. If I remember right, there is some research on the social meaning of the rictus (grin) in higher primates that connects "smiling" with territoriality and physical aggression. This has some sociobiological implications for the relentless and often vicious ad hominem jokes in Greek Old Comedy (think Aristophanes) and in related phenomena both in and outside of the Greek world.


Mar. 31 2008 03:22 PM
Michelle Martinez from Norwalk, CT

If laughing is social, would a child raised in a home where it is never exposed to laughter (neither through human contact or outside stimuli) know how to laugh, when to laugh or understand laughter? Also, if pitch in laughter has evolved to communicate something, what pitch is understood to be diabolical or maniacal laughter? I found the laugh-box laughter in the last segment disturbing, not funny. Once I saw my husband laugh at it though, I was eventually crying I was laughing so hard.

Mar. 29 2008 10:27 PM
Mike from Milwaukee, WI

The Elaine May and Mike Nichols segment made me wonder: Do you guys have a collection of Radio Lab outtakes stored away somewhere? That could be a fun listen. The show is produced in such a way that it seems like just a casual one-take conversation, but I'm guessing that there may be some studio wizardry going on and that sometimes things break down in laughter etc.?

Mar. 20 2008 03:28 PM
Julie Wolf from

I love to laugh and this show really helped. Thanks... more on laughing please. And.... have you tickled your rat today?

Julie Wolf - Seattle

Mar. 19 2008 12:11 AM
chestina from Midtown

I miss terry gross - this show is not for me.

Mar. 17 2008 03:29 PM
Jody from Kansas City

I mean HEAR...doh!

Mar. 10 2008 02:02 PM
Jody from Kansas City

Went home and got my son's pet rat out. Tickled her....because it looked like maybe the one the video was being jerked around too much. But turns out there is no gentle way to tickle a rat. Believe me I tried. But she did seem to love it. Made little noises that I could here. Don't know about ones I couldn't. She did keep following my hand around after that too. But then again she has always been a attention seeker.

Mar. 10 2008 02:01 PM

If laughing relieves stress in humans, would it do the same for animals? This is why I love this show. It makes me ask more questions and raises discussion. Thank you! I can't wait for more.

Mar. 09 2008 04:47 AM
Anne from Randolph NJ

Wonderful to have you both back! Great show!



Mar. 08 2008 08:47 AM
Josh from Durham, NC

This is perfect:

Mar. 05 2008 08:11 AM

I joked all throughout my last interview. I guess I was tying to 'get in the head' of the interviewers. Still waiting to hear if my magic worked...

Mar. 03 2008 10:33 AM
John Umbaugh from

Off topic, but it resonated with me when Robert chastised Jad for using the word "Awesome." I'm going to be 31 tomorrow, and I still use "Awesome." And I'm embarrassed about it. But, sorry Robert, "delightful" just doesn't cut it.

In any case, awesome episode, guys.

Mar. 02 2008 06:26 PM
Steve Hug from Missoula, MT

It seems to me there could be another interpretation of what's going on in this video. I was struck by how vigorously Dr. Panksepp handled the rat, and that, if looked at from the rat's perspective, this might seem more like an attack by a predator than a tickling session. Looked to me like the rat was trying to kick and defend himself, and the sounds quite possibly could be shouts of anger and warning.

Mar. 01 2008 03:49 PM
Karl James from London UK

Great to have the show back!

Essential listening in terms of infectious laughter: The Laughing Policeman by Charles Jolly in 1922

Feb. 28 2008 12:54 PM

Hey, I thought you said there would be a video of rat tickling. I am as wary as Michal above, is that true laughter, or just friction?

Feb. 28 2008 09:52 AM
Michael from Plano, TX

Not to be cynical or anything, but is it possible Dr. Panksepp is just shaking little bits of air out of the rat when it's tickled? Or is that the subsonic sound of a persons bones rubbing together or flesh rubbing against fur? I would be interested to read the full articles.

Feb. 26 2008 01:14 PM
Heather from England

I have cared for many foster babies. Each of them was different as to when they laughed for the first time. One was a month old, another two, some not till three months. It is always a different and distinct milestone that we watch for a write down in their memory book.

Feb. 26 2008 03:47 AM
arivoli veerappan from coldwater MI

I like to add few things here:Excellent show and I enjoyed it

I am a pediatrician for about 20 yrs.
Baby attains the first developmental milestone called social smile at about 6 (40-42days)weeks.This becomes a coo and then becomes a distinct laughter about 80-90days.Though some babies are outliers to this timeline,Amanda, Aristotile are very correct in their observation.
There is one type of seizure called gelastic seizures where the child laughs uncontrollably for with no stimulus and I had one such child.

Feb. 23 2008 10:36 PM
Jeri Koegel from Laguna Beach, CA

When will these be posted for listening?

Feb. 23 2008 08:24 PM
Ashiq Khondker from Manhattan

Just a few things.. I'm listening to the show right now and I remembered seeing a program on television many years ago where a baby gorilla in San Diego zoo is tickled, and laughs!
Also, a comment about the possibility birds singing when they're 'happy' (assuming they can have such emotions) reminded me of coffee shops in Singapore where songbird enthusiasts bring along their caged birds, hang the cages up, and listen to the birds singing with each other for hours and hours.

Feb. 22 2008 03:33 PM

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