A new study suggests that different types of laughter – joyful, mocking and tickling – make the brain react in different ways. A laugh may signal mockery, humour, and joy or simply be a response to tickling, but each kind of laughter conveys a wealth of auditory and social information.
Laughter in animals is a form of social bonding based on a primordial reflex to tickling, but human laughter has come a long way from these playful roots, researchers said. Though many people laugh when they’re tickled, ‘social laughter’ in humans can be used to communicate happiness, taunts or other conscious messages to peers. Researchers studied participants’ neural responses as they listened to three kinds of laughter: joy, taunt and tickling.
‘Laughing at someone and laughing with someone leads to different social consequences,’ said Dirk Wildgruber from the University of Tuebingen, Germany. ‘Specific cerebral connectivity patterns during perception of these different types of laughter presumably reflect modulation of attentional mechanisms and processing resources,’ said Wildgruber.
The researchers found that brain regions sensitive to processing more complex social information were activated when people heard joyous or taunting laughter, but not when they heard the ‘tickling laughter’. However, ‘tickling laughter’ is more complex than the other types at the acoustic level, and consequently activated brain regions sensitive to this higher degree of acoustic complexity.