By: Leonora Bowers (Bugle Team)

Last week, UCLU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society hosted an evening lecture on the science of laughter that proved to be extremely popular. Along with the members of the hosting society, the UCL Neuroscience Society too attended the event. Together they managed to fill up almost half of UCL’s larger lecture theatres. The speaker was Professor Sophie Scott, a senior fellow of the Wellcome Trust and a leading researcher in the neuroscience of voices and emotion at UCL. She had recently given a TED talk on the subject – “Why We Laugh”, that was also the subject of this event.

Laughter, as Sophie quickly pointed out, is a very weird phenomenon. Smiling and laughter are one of the few emotional reactions that can be universally recognised across the globe. Research suggests that it may be the only positive emotion (for other “basic emotions”, see Pixar’s Inside Out). It’s a non-verbal vocalisation that is often involuntary, and closer in nature to animal calls than to the sophisticated sound of human speech. Interestingly, she says, laughter is often not taken seriously as a subject for research in the way that other emotions and emotional disorders are.

Contrary to what most people seem to think, the act of laughter is primarily associated with bonding. Additionally it occurs most frequently during conversation between people who know and like each other. The kind of laughter used in these situations is known as “posed” laughter – it is shorter and more nasal than “natural” laughter, which arises from humour. One might assume that “posed” laughter or sound would be perceived as insincere. Though, it actually seems that posed laughter is an important part of human communication and social interaction, and is generally not perceived as negative.

Sophie further explained how laughter could be used as a coping mechanism in stressful situations. She explained how her own research indicated that couples that used laughter to manage stressful situations were generally more successful. The act of laughing acts as a prime for other people to join in. In tense situations, laughter serves to synchronise the emotional processes of everyone involved, reducing the distances between them. While the long-term benefits of laughter are yet unclear, it is clear that the act of laughing itself reduces stress levels and is an effective painkiller.

Overall the lecture was well paced, entertaining, and informative. Professor Scott had comprehensive knowledge of the subject, was willing to stay and answer questions long after the lecture itself ended and portrayed a great sense of humour throughout. This helped her make a good impression on many of the attendees. Quite apart from anything else, the universal success of the event can probably be summed up by the fact that when asked what stood out, one student replied “Everything between the start and the end.”


Sophie Scott’s TED talk can be found here: