7 surprising facts about laughing and crying

For one, Canadian babies are some of the top criers in the world!

The Nature of Things documentary Laughing and Crying gives us an inside look at the science behind two of our earliest and most universal ways of communicating.

“There’s something really important about laughter and crying. Maybe because they start really early in our lives and they cast a long shadow over our lives,” says Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist.

Here are some of the most surprising and incredible things we’ve learned.

Canadian newborns cry more than babies from other countries

Most newborns can spend more than two hours crying every day — but some Canadian babies can cry for more than three hours a day! That’s because Canada has one of the highest rates of colic in the world: around 34 per cent of Canadian babies suffer from it.

Babies born in Denmark, Germany and Japan cry the least, and Canadian babies are on par with tots from Great Britain and Italy. Researchers think that parenting, pregnancy experiences and even genetics could play a role in crying levels.

Fortunately for parents, babies don’t cry for hours at a time and split it up throughout the day. It’s their only way of communicating their needs — that they’re hungry, uncomfortable or need a diaper change. So those screams are really just requests for a bit of help or a comforting cuddle.

Laughter is trying to kill you

Laughter is contagious. Even when we try and maintain control of our giggles, watching someone else burst into hysterics gets us going, too. “You can just catch a laugh from somebody because they’re laughing,” says Scott, “even if you have no idea why they’re laughing.”

Full-bodied laughing, however, creates competition between talking, laughing and breathing. Scott is adamant that “laughter will win, and it stops you breathing. It stops you talking. It’s just squeezing air out of you. It is effectively trying to kill you.”

Just remember that during a particularly hysterical laughter session, (you should) take a moment and try to breathe!

But laughter’s also the best medicine

Laughing with others releases endorphins in the brain, a natural painkiller hormone that makes you feel great. It also activates the release of serotonin, the same brain chemical that helps to lower depression.

Laughing can also protect your heart. Research has shown that laughter reduces the body’s stress response, keeping inflammation low and protecting your blood vessels and heart muscles from the impacts of cardiovascular disease. So enjoy those “hearty” laughs!

On average, women cry almost seven times more than men

Although babies cry more often, one study revealed that adults tend to cry longer — 20 per cent of all grown-up crying bouts last longer than 30 minutes. Eight per cent of crying bouts go on to last longer than a whole hour!

Adult men cry about seven times a year, compared to women at 47 times per year (almost once a week on average, but who’s counting?). Research suggests that women may have better empathy skills, which may help explain the tears. Social pressure and the adage “big boys don’t cry” might also influence men to cry less often, and it’s been suggested that increased testosterone could inhibit tears, too.

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

We laugh a lot more with others

Research shows that we laugh a lot more with others than when we’re alone — and most of the time, humour isn’t even involved!

A typical 10-minute conversation has nearly six bouts of laughter. “We can use laughter to punctuate our interactions, to smooth our interactions … as a social glue,” says Carolyn McGettigan from Royal Holloway, University of London.

But our brains are wired to recognize the difference between actual laughing and more forced, social laughter, says McGettigan. “Our brains are so sensitive to the social and emotional meaning of laughter that we hear.”

Culture has a big effect on our crying

Most of our crying episodes take place in an intimate setting, like at home or in the car. But whether we cry in public or not depends quite a bit on cultural influences. Experts have observed that those who live in wealthier, more individualistic cultures report crying more often in public. This may be due to differences in freedom of expression, instead of suffering or distress.

Everybody laughs in almost exactly the same way

We all laugh, and we all do it in nearly the exact same way. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has discovered laughing’s precise rhythmic pattern: “[We have] a short burst of sound, about a fifteenth of a second long. The ‘ha’ repeats about every fifth of a second.”

If we try changing the rules of laughter, speeding it up or slowing it down, it suddenly doesn’t sound like laughing anymore. “If we laugh in [any way] other than that way, it sounds very odd,” says Provine.

Watch Laughing and Crying on The Nature of Things to learn more.



Available on CBC Gem

Laughing and Crying

Nature of Things