The science of laughing – and why social media decays relationships

July 9, 2012 by
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Using Twitter or Facebook to keep in touch is fine – just don’t expect those relationships to last if that is the only contact you have.

Online pals: Hillary may think she has plenty of Twitter friends but does she?

So said scientists at the Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibition, who chatted to visitors about the science of laughing, spotting a real laugh from a fake one, and how social media is changing the nature of our interactions.

Dr Anna Machin, one of the researchers manning the ‘LOL! The science and art of laughter’ exhibit, explained that relying on text-based social media such as Twitter to keep a relationship going is set to end in failure. This is because brain chemicals called endorphins, which are released through experiences such as laughter and pleasure, and which produce a feeling of well-being, occur more when you see someone face-to-face.

Communicating with someone over texts won’t produce the same effect, Dr Machin told Under the Scope, and so people are less motivated to maintain those relationships.  “If you rely more on Facebook, your relationships are more likely to decay,” the University of Oxford scientist said, referring to a study measuring the amount of positive reaction people experienced when communicating using various media, ranging from face-to-face to Skype and texting.

The results showed that people experienced less positive reactions when there was less face-to-face contact. “The reason that laughter is good, and we feel better when you laugh, is because laughter releases endorphins, but you have to see someone physically, face-to-face or on Skype,” said Dr Machin.

“If you are texting, you are not going to find that interaction as enjoyable, and if you rely on it, that relationship will break down. It’s not going to work.”

Endorphins are addictive, she said, explaining: “We need to have them to make you stay in a relationship.

“Social media is great, because it allows people to maintain relationships over long distances, but if that’s the only way of keeping in touch with that person, that relationship will end.”

“Facebook is great, but don’t rely on it,” she added. “You are not getting that neurochemical hit, so you are not going to stay in that relationship.”

And to those people who claim they have 12,000 friends on Facebook, she says: “No you haven’t.”

Who’s laughing? Cameron Diaz puts on a happy face

The scientists also put on a comedy show for visitors and measured how much they laughed, seeing who were rolling around in their seats and whose funny bones were not being tickled.

Monitors were placed on the audience volunteers to look at their breathing, with intense bursts of breath indicating laughter, while a screen outside the ‘comedy tent’ showed the laughter rates of participants.

One of the interesting aspects for scientists was how people tended to laugh if they were sitting next to someone else who was chuckling, indicating that laughter is ‘physically contagious’, even if the laughers don’t find the joke particularly funny in itself.

Being able to tell a fake laugh from a real one is another key finding. Through analysing people’s brains using MRI scanners when they listen to various laughs, scientists have found that the brains of people who are better at distinguishing a real from a ‘posed’ laugh were more likely to join in when they hear laughter.

Researchers have found that this is because when you hear a laugh, you activate the same regions of the brain, using ‘mirror neurons’, that you would use to move your own face into a smile, meaning that humans are primed to join in when we hear laughter.

“What’s interesting is that laughing is synchronised,” said Dr Carolyn McGettigan, a neuroscientist at University College London who was also at the laughter exhibit. She explained that people tend to laugh more if they are in groups, particularly when they are with people they know.

So why do we laugh? The most likely explanation is that laughter is used to form social bonds, something that can be seen in primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos, said Dr McGettigan.

“It’s true that chimps, bonobos and apes laugh during play, during rough and tumble,” she said. “They laugh in response to other chimps, and they laugh because it’s going to get more tickling and more play.

“Rats also laugh when they are tickled, as they make a sound that’s distinct from other sounds they produce.

“We found that when rats get tickled by the researcher’s hand, they then start following the hand around the cage to get tickles. I think it’s very much linked to how touch is used to form relationships.”

The first time humans laugh is when they are tickled as a baby, said Dr McGettigan, adding: “This highlights the social relationships that lead on from tickling. You can almost draw a line from the things we did as babies – you are reinforcing bonds with other humans.”

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