Animals Laughed Long Before Humans, Study Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
March 31, 2005
Before the joke, there was laughter.

As the human brain evolved, humans were able to laugh before they could speak, according to a new study.

But here's the punch line: Laughter and joy are not unique to humans, the study says. Ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals long before humans began cracking up.

"Human laughter has robust roots in our animalian past," said Jaak Panksepp, a professor of psychobiology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Panksepp has studied rats and found that when they "play," they often chirp—a primitive form of laughter, according to the scientist. In an article to be published tomorrow in the journal Science, he makes the argument that animal laughter is the basis for human joy.


In studying laughter, scientists have focused mostly on related issues—humor, personality, health benefits, social theory—rather than laughter itself.

New research, however, shows that "circuits" for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the human brain.

As humans have incorporated language into play, we may have developed new connections to joyous parts of our brains that evolved before the cerebral cortex, the outer layer associated with thought and memory.

Researchers say that the capacity to laugh emerges early in child development, as anyone who has tickled a baby knows.

There is ample evidence that many other mammals make play sounds, including tickle-induced panting, which resembles human laughter. Indeed, animals are capable of many emotional feelings, just like humans, some scientists say.

"The recognition by neuroscientists that the brain mechanisms underlying pain, pleasure, fear, and lust are the same in humans and other mammals underscores our similarity to other species and is extremely important," said Tecumseh Fitch, a psychology lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

In a 2003 study Panksepp and Bowling Green State University neurobiologist Jeff Burgdorf demonstrated that if rats are tickled in a playful way, they readily chirp. Rats that were tickled bonded with the researchers and became rapidly conditioned to seek tickles.

Understanding the chirping of the rats may help scientists better understand human laughter.

"Deciphering the neutral circuitry of playful chirping in rats is an important goal of future research," Panksepp writes in his Science article. "Such knowledge may help to reveal how joking and horsing around emerged in our expansive higher brain regions."

From Pant-Pant to Ha-Ha

Robert Provine, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, agrees there is an evolutionary continuity of laughter. Its origin is in tickling and rough-and-tumble play, he says.

Provine, the author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, and other scientists have studied chimpanzees and found a link between their laughter-like noises and human laughter.

"Laughter is literally the sound of play, with the primal 'pant-pant'—the labored breathing of physical play—becoming the human 'ha-ha,'" Provine said.

By studying the transition between the panting of chimps and the human ha-ha, scientists discovered that breath control is the key to the emergence of both human laughter and speech.

The sources of play and laughter in the brain are instinctual, many scientists believe. If so, the many instinctive behaviors of other animals could help researchers better understand consciousness and other human conditions.

"For example, we may be conscious less than we think and overestimate consciousness and its influence on our lives," Provine said. "We are not, for example, conscious of unconsciousness. Regarding laughter, since it's not consciously controlled—try to laugh on command!—we don't speak laughter the way we choose words in speech."

Scientists also hope to track down the genes that control joy.

"Perhaps we will even stumble on new molecules to alleviate depression as well as disorders of excessive exuberance [such as mania and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder]," Panksepp writes in Science.

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