Sunday 18 February 2018

Books - Non fiction: Ha! The Science Of When We Laugh And Why

Author - Scott Weems

If anything can be said to set us apart from the rest of life on earth – aside from our penchant for YouTube cat videos, obviously – it is surely our capacity for humour. Our pets may feel love, joy and loss – but they wouldn't know one end of a LOL from another and that's why the gulf between us and them is so profound.

But while we know humour when we see it, deconstructing the process of laughter is not easy. We laugh for a hundred reasons every day: to defuse tension, to set others at ease, because something just strikes us as really funny. Come up with a unified theory for all that and you are on the verge of diagnosing the human condition.

Setting out to 'solve' the mystery of laughter, neurologist Scott Weems brings out the scientific big guns early on. When we laugh, he explains, our brains are rewarded with a shot of the 'feelgood' hormone dopamine (likewise triggered by scoffing chocolate and chugging sangria – especially if you are doing both at once).

He softens the academic rigour with some beguiling anecdotes, such as the story of his wife rolling around in chuckles watching Titanic in the cinema (as Leonardo slipped into the ice-water and everyone else dabbed tears) and an account of – and yes this really happened – The Tanzania Laughing Epidemic of 1962.

Some of the factoids he presents are intriguing, several straight -up bizarre. Why, for instance, do women laugh less as they age but not men? Is it true that men make more jokes – but that women are more likely to laugh at them?

His conclusions are striking. "Studies show that humour improves our health and makes us smarter," Weems writes. But, conversely, the wisecracking guy (or girl) is unlikely to share in this good health. Funny people, we learn, tend to have short lifespans, are more neurotic, have a higher chance of being sedentary and to smoke. Everyone loves a clown – but it pays not to be one.

3 STARS

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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