Why Some People Laugh at Inappropriate Times
I have a problem. As soon as someone tells me not to make a sound, I have the most overwhelming, uncontrollable need to giggle. I try to stifle it, but all I really succeed in doing is snorting and ruining podcast audio. I would love to keep it together, but I can’t — really, I just can’t. I’m not typically short on self-discipline, especially not for 60-second bursts, so it begs the question: Why do I laugh at inappropriate times?
The Internet assures me I’m not alone, but researchers have few proven answers when it comes to nervous laughter. Explanations are mostly theoretical, which at this point, I’ll take.
One of the theories is that comedy – that is, what amuses us and makes us laugh – often relies on the incongruous. For example, someone who plans to do a beautiful dive into a pool, but who ends up doing a loud belly flop, might elicit laughter simply because the belly flop is so incongruous to the planned outcome (assuming the person isn’t actually seriously hurt). In my case, our video editor, Shrishti, asks us for one minute of silence necessary for something technical that I don’t fully understand, and the resulting silence is (a) so incongruous to modern life that I find it uncomfortable, and (b) all I can think of is the hilarity of someone making noise when they’ve been asked to be silent – another bit of incongruity.
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Other experts give more weight to the former — the emotion of discomfort or any negative emotion. In some situations, inappropriate laughter may be our brain’s way of breaking anxiety and tension — a built-in coping mechanism to diffuse bad vibes or stress. And in today’s overconnected norm, true silence often feels like something has gone wrong. “[This] can sometimes occur as fits of nervous laughter in immediate reaction to some event, perhaps serving to protect ourselves against the true nature of what we’re witnessing,” Jordan Raine, a Ph.D. researcher into “Human Non-verbal Vocalizations” at the University of Sussex, told Vice Australia in a piece exploring why people laugh when they shouldn’t.
In the right circumstances, laughter overwhelmingly promotes “warm, fuzzy feelings,” boosts cardiovascular function, and strengthens immunity and endocrine function, writes Lynne A. Barker, a reader in cognitive neuroscience at Sheffield Hallam University, for The Conversation. Barker points to the benefits of “laugh therapy,” a form of therapy aimed at relieving stress and tension through laughter. Research suggests laugh therapy can decrease anxiety and boost mood by affecting the brain’s serotonin levels in a way similar to an antidepressant. Nervous laughter could simply be an involuntary and instantaneous attempt at self-prescribed laugh therapy.
Or, it could be a hiccup in mental processing, a sort of “tug-of-war” between brain regions responsible for judging and responding to funniness, and regions responsible for regulating emotional response, describes Rebecca Kamm for Vice Austalia. “We might find an event so hilarious that our cortical structures are unable to control the sensory overload in our other brain structures, resulting in uncontrollable fits of laughter,” Raine told her.
But the truth is, Raine continued, that we don’t know much about why people laugh at all, even when it seems ‘appropriate.’ So when you find yourself laughing without an explanation as to why, take heart: The smartest scientists on the planet don’t know why, either.