Before we can even speak, we laugh and we cry. It’s hardwired in us from birth and is universal among humans. It’s even something we share with many members of the animal kingdom.

Laughing and Crying, a documentary from The Nature of Things, uncovers the latest science behind one of nature’s oldest, most basic forms of communication.

Most of us have been told, at some point, “You’ll feel better after a good cry.” And nearly every parent has been warned not to pick up a crying baby, lest you “spoil” her. We may think we’re familiar with giggles and sobs, but there are lots of myths out there about laughing and crying.

We only laugh when we find something funny, right?

Researchers like Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have conducted years of fieldwork to determine what actually makes us laugh, and the results may be surprising.

“One of the things that we discovered is that most laughter is preceded by things that are not remotely humorous,” says Provine. In fact, when test subjects kept log books of their daily laughter, Provine found that they laughed about 30 times more when they were around others than when they were alone. “Laughter almost disappeared among solitary subjects,” he says.

For Provine, one of the most striking things about laughter is the inherent social nature of it. “Laughter and humour are almost considered to be synonymous and we find … that’s clearly not true.”

Professor Carolyn McGettigan from Royal Holloway, University of London has noted the same social element of laughter in her work. She is investigating whether our brains can tell the difference between spontaneous, hysterical laughter and more forced social laughter.

“We can use laughter to punctuate our interactions … as a social glue,” says McGettigan. “I think we underestimate how much we do use it.” In her research, Carolyn is recording very different-sounding laughter that’s produced by the same person — forced, social laughter and genuine laughing in response to something humorous.  

After playing these different laughs for subjects, she found that we’re all pretty good at telling the difference. Our brains see laughing in a social context as conversation, McGettigan explains, “where we try to infer the other person’s emotional and mental state.”

Are you spoiling your baby by responding to his or her cries?

It’s no secret that babies cry a lot, with newborns crying up to two hours a day. It seems to be the factory preset for all humans. “They’re vocal instincts. You don’t have to learn to laugh and cry,” says Provine. “Crying is innate, a part of our biological endowment that is needed immediately after birth.”

Crying is the first language of babies. They’re able to scream loudly from the minute they’re born, since they don’t develop language for many months, and crying is the only way they can communicate early on. How else are they going to get your attention?

A baby’s cry sets off something instinctual in us, as well. “It can motivate us to jump out of the bed and respond as if there’s a fire in the house,” says David Haley, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

As a parent soothes and quiets a crying baby, dopamine is released in the parents’ brain, making them feel good. “We have developed a positive reward association to the cry,” Haley explains. When baby cries, parents soothe them until all is quiet, bringing sweet relief. Do this enough times and a positive feedback loop is created, making the parent crave another dopamine hit from comforting their child.

So don’t worry about picking up that screaming newborn for the 20th time today; you’re not spoiling them — you’re just responding to their needs. As you comfort and quiet their screams, they’ll feel much better. And so will you!

Is laughing a good alternative to exercise?

“Laughter is the best medicine.” Some really take that sentiment to heart, using laughter as exercise. One pioneering researcher at Stanford even claimed that one minute of hearty laughter could be as good as 10 minutes on a rowing machine.

The benefits of laughing are certainly widespread, according to Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. “You see a measurable change in pain thresholds because you get an increased uptake of endorphins,” she says.

“You also get a decrease of adrenaline … [and] cortisol goes down when you’ve been laughing, so you are more relaxed and you are less stressed.”

However, as with other types of purported exercise replacements, the claim that laughing can burn as many calories as hard exercise is a bit of an exaggeration. “It’s become an urban myth that we can laugh our way to health,” says Provine.

Laughter does burn calories, reduce blood pressure and can improve cardiac health, but one study shows we only burn about one-and-a-half calories per minute of laughter, compared to about nine calories per minute with moderate exercise on a rowing machine.

So you’d have to find something particularly hilarious, and react to it for a very long time, if you wanted to swap laughing for your usual exercise routine. That said, genuine laughing is still good for us. As Scott says, “you know it in your heart: it feels good to laugh,” and we feel much better for it.

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Crying makes everyone feel better, doesn’t it?

“One of the big questions is whether crying makes you feel better,” says Marc Baker, a researcher at the University of Portsmouth. “What we tend to find is when people are asked about it, they … say it does make them feel better.”

Baker is studying so-called “super-criers,” people who can’t keep themselves from sobbing, allowing him to research reliable, intense crying. He’s using thermal cameras to understand the role that intense crying may have in making people feel better.

Some international studies state that just 50 per cent of people report feeling better after a cry, with 10 per cent feeling worse, according to Ad Vingerhoets, a clinical psychologist at Tilburg University.

Baker is trying to get to the bottom of the question with his study and is still awaiting results. “With the thermal camera, you can’t trick it,” he says.

When it comes to one of our oldest and most basic forms of communication, it turns out we still have a lot to learn!

Watch Laughing and Crying on The Nature of Things.



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