Some people complain that Japanese people don’t laugh enough, that Japanese society today is too strait-laced.

Are the Japanese too serious, too stressed? Perhaps they are — but aren’t we all?

In any case, Japanese has an awful lot of onomatopoeic words describing laughter. Fu! fu! fu! is a kind of hidden, sly (and girly) cackle; gwa ha ha! is a gloating guffaw; kya! kya! is how young people, especially girls, laugh, or express happiness when, for example a celebrity enters a room. U shi shi! is vulgar and often behind someone’s back.

So despite the stereotype persisting in the West, it’s not true that the Japanese laugh mainly when they are nervous, or only laugh modestly behind their hands.

Having said that , everyone could do with laughing more, and though Japan’s traditional rakugo performance art of comic storytelling continues to foster mirth, in 1995 a different sort of laughter-promotion organization sprang up in India, when Madan Kataria, a Mumbai physician, started the first “laughter club.” Now there are branches all over the world.

What we’re interested in here, though, is how the hormonal basis of laughter is becoming more understood, and how natural selection shaped the function of laughter.

One study, in 2002, from the Kenko Kagaku Center in Osaka, showed that after people had listened to a rakugo story, the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood was lower. Another study, at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, found that laughter is good for the heart because it helps blood vessels function better.

Meanwhile, another U.S. study found that people with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease. So, whereas those without heart disease might laugh if a waiter spilled something on them in a restaurant, for example, or if they arrived at a party and found someone else was wearing the exact same outfit, those people with heart disease were less likely to recognize humor or to use it to defuse uncomfortable situations.

Anticipatory changes

Now researchers from Loma Linda University in California have shown that even the anticipation of laughter causes hormonal changes. Specifically, endorphins, the “natural pain killers” released by the brain, increase in the blood when a humorous experience is anticipated.

Researcher Lee Berk of Loma Linda reported to the American Physiological Society last week that blood taken from volunteers just before they watched a funny movie had 27 percent more endorphins and 87 percent more growth hormone than that taken from a group who hadn’t been told they were about to be shown a funny movie. Growth hormone boosts the power of the immune system.

“From our prior studies, this modulation appears to be concomitant with mood-state changes, and taken together, these would appear to carry important, positive implications for wellness, disease-prevention and most certainly stress-reduction,” Berk said.

This isn’t just a study into the biology of laughter, Berk said, but it could be the beginning of a “biology of hope.”

“The physiological effects of a single one-hour session viewing a humorous video has appeared to last up to 12 to 24 hours in some individuals,” Berk says.

So we are starting to understand the physiological and hormonal reasons for the positive effects that laughter has on us, but how did it evolve?

Other apes laugh, or at least they smile. Chimps bare their teeth in a smile-like grimace to show submission to a superior animal. Biologists think that laughter evolved from socially incongruous situations. One can imagine a chimp inadvertently breaking wind during a grooming session.

In a review last year of the evolutionary origins of laughter, Matthew Gervais and David Sloan Wilson, biologists from Binghamton University, New York, looked at how two distinct types of laughter arise. The first, they call “stimulus-driven laughter”; the second they classify as laughter which is self-generated and strategic.

In other words, the second type is the sort of laughter we produce when someone — usually someone socially superior to us — makes a banal comment. Gervais and Wilson say that when our human ancestors evolved the capacity for willful control over facial motor systems about 2 million years ago, the second, strategic type of laughter evolved from the first, stimulus-driven type. Laughter was co-opted for use in social interactions.

“Humans can now voluntarily access the laughter program and utilize it for their own ends, including smoothing conversational interaction, appeasing others, inducing favorable stances in them, or downright laughing at people who are not liked,” write Gervais and Wilson.

We can use laughter to punctuate conversation, convey feelings or ideas such as embarrassment and derision. And we can, just like other primates, burst into spontaneous laughter if the boss breaks wind during a board meeting. “U shi shi! Kya kya kya!”

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