Laughing and Crying

Scientists around the world are learning new things about the unmistakable behaviours behind the soundtrack of our lives’ most memorable moments
Available on CBC Gem

Laughing and Crying

Nature of Things

“Ha ha,” “hee hee,” “boo hoo,” “waaa, waaa”….

The unmistakable sounds of laughing and crying are recognizable all over the world. They’re pillars of human communication and the soundtrack to our lives’ most memorable moments: births, first words, first loves and final losses.

Yet some researchers say that when it comes to studying human behaviour, there’s nothing as poorly understood as laughs and tears.

Why did we develop these unusual vocal communication techniques? How uniquely human are these sounds?

In Laughing and Crying, we meet neuroscientists, psychology researchers and evolutionary biologists who are exploring every scientific angle of these bizarre and beautiful emotional behaviours.

In London, cognitive neuroscientist and amateur stand-up comedian Sophie Scott puts her ideas about laughing to the test. Taking to the stage, Scott reveals how laughter can hijack the human body.

In Baltimore, Robert Provine, the esteemed “dean” of laughter research at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, introduces us to “sidewalk neuroscience” — studying laughter in the wild. By observing students on campus, Provine discovered that the vast majority of laughing we do is social and not in response to jokes. (We also laugh up to 30 times more in social situations than we do when we’re alone.)

At England’s Royal Holloway University, Carolyn McGettigan — an expert in human vocal communication — delves into the way our ears and brains perceive spontaneous and social laughter differently. McGettigan also takes us on a delightful detour to a school to watch a class of youngsters play “laughter scientists” for the morning.

We meet Marina Davila-Ross, an evolutionary biology researcher at the University of Portsmouth. Davila-Ross’s research, which included tickling gorillas, shows that the roots of laughter can be traced back approximately 13 million years to our shared primate ancestors.

In Vermont, Gina Mireault takes another unique approach to studying laughter, running a very exclusive comedy club … just for infants! Working with her research assistant, Mireault investigates babies’ senses of humour. She believes when a baby laughs and what a baby laughs at can give us tantalizing insight into how developed their brains are.

Toronto-based David Haley studies the other end of the spectrum: infant crying. He suspects that babies’ cries are about much more than immediate concerns like feeding and changing. Infants may actually be using their tears to turn mom and dad into super-parents, caregivers who are ready to juggle multiple tasks while responding with empathy.

4 giant myths about laughing and crying
7 surprising facts about laughing and crying
Laughing and crying is the soundtrack to our lives

In the Canadian prairies, evolutionary biologist Susan Lingle is fascinated with infant cries of all kinds, including those of baby seals, mule deer and human newborns. Her provocative theory suggests mammal mothers are hardwired to respond to the infant distress calls of a wide variety of species — even those separated by tens of millions of years of evolution.

Finally, back in Portsmouth, Marc Baker focuses his research on “super-criers,” people who can experience intense bouts of weeping. Baker’s aim is to investigate the true power of tears: like laughter, can a good cry really make someone feel better?