Neuroscientist Robert Provine talks with NPR about laughter and human nature

Published: Apr 15, 2016

(Photo by Marlayna Demond '11 for UMBC.)

Robert Provine, psychology research professor and professor emeritus, has spoken with several major national and international news outlets over the last few weeks about his research on crying, tickling, yawning, and sneezing.

During the NCAA basketball tournament, Provine’s research was cited in The Wall Street Journal, providing context for why people were yawning while observing the games. The article noted: “Almost anything related to yawning causes yawning, says Robert Provine…his research shows that 55% of people yawn when they see someone else yawn—which may be why you want to yawn while reading about [basketball player Malcolm Brogdon] yawning.”

In The Washington Post, Provine described how his research on tickling found that most people experience tickling positively and explained why we can’t tickle ourselves. “Tickling involves the neurological program for the generation of self and other,” Provine said.

Provine has also been in the news recently commenting on a new study that may help shed light on whether humans laugh differently when surrounded by friends versus strangers. In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers asked 966 people from 24 societies around the world to listen to brief recordings of pairs of people laughing together for about one second. The researchers state that the results could help explain laughter’s role as a nonverbal communication tool to provide information about status and affiliations of individuals within small groups.

Provine, author of Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond, was not involved in the research, but when speaking about the study to Smithsonian he noted, “laughter may be a simple behavior, but it’s also a powerful tool that provides insight into more complicated and difficult vocalizations, like speech and language.” He later added, “with laughter you’re looking at a human universal, a behavior that’s shared by all members of our species. To make generalizations about laughter, we need information about its use in different cultures so that we can see that laughter doesn’t have one meaning in one society and another in a different society.”

Provine told NPR that it’s significant and impressive that the results were consistent across all societies studied because “that suggests we’re dealing with a very basic aspect of human nature,” adding, “laughter seems to be done by all people and all cultures, but details about what it means require cross-cultural studies. Such research is hard to do and is rarely done.”

A complete list of Provine’s recent media coverage is below.

Why Virginia basketball will make you yawn (Wall Street Journal) 
The surprising reasons why we tickle one another (Washington Post) 
The science of sneezes (Daily Mail) 
A good cry (New Scientist) 
Why do we yawn? (Mental Floss) 
Who’s laughing now? Listeners can tell if laughers are friends or not (Smithsonian) 
The sound of laughter tells more than you think (NPR) 
The sound of your laughter reveals a lot, even to total strangers (Huffington Post) 

Image: Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC. 

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