There’s no denying laughter plays an essential role in every culture across the world. But while it is an universal social phenomenon, its function as a form of communication remains a mystery. Over the years, scientists saw this as a challenge and therefore tried to study laughter’s evolutionary past as well as its function today from all possible perspectives.
One study, published earlier this year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, suggests that laughter may act as an indicator of the friendship status of those laughing for the listeners. The team that conducted the study asked listeners to judge the friendship status of pairs of strangers and friends based on their simultaneous laughter.
They found that listeners were able to reliably distinguish friends from strangers, their judgments of friendship status being linked “to acoustic features of laughs known to be associated with spontaneous production and high arousal.”
So that gives us an idea of some of the functions laughter serves in modern societies. But what about its origins? Science says that while laughter has been linked to higher pain tolerance or indicating social status, its primary function is that of creating and deepening social bonds, which, as the world evolved, became crucial to our survival as a species.
Scientists posit that laughter probably evolved from labored breathing during play such as tickling, which encourages cooperative behavior in young mammals. This expression of the shared arousal experienced in those situations may have been effective in strengthening positive bonds. As English actor John Cleese puts it: “Laughter connects you with people. It’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of distance or any sense of social hierarchy when you’re just howling with laughter.”