Laughter may be contagious, but sometimes it sounds like we all have different strains.
Think of those famous, trademark laughs — Fran Drescher's nasally titter, Eddie Murphy's breathless guffaw, Nick Offerman's unexpected giggle. Now, think of your own. They're all different, as if dialects or accents from across the geography of laughter.
The reasons we laugh extend beyond responses to humor — laughter is a social tool, one we use to interact with each other and also to take advantage of its benefits (like its therapeutic effects and advantages for improving memory).
But what causes our laughs to sound different from one another?
Besides anatomy — laughter is a team effort between your limbic system, larynx, lungs, respiratory muscles and more — what drives you to chuckle and me to snort? The answer lies in psychology and human behavior.
"We all have a range of different laughs that we use for different purposes and circumstances," says body language and behavior expert Judi James, author of The Body Language Bible. "Most are within the 'social masking' spectrum — that is, we do them to be polite or to create social bonds."
James gives an example of watching your favorite TV comedy — if you're alone, you'll probably laugh out loud very little, if at all. But when you watch it with friends, you'll laugh with them as a form of social bonding and shared experience.
The only really authentic laugh will emerge spontaneously, and that's when we know what we really sound like. This genuine laugh often embarrasses us, as it sounds or looks pretty gross, often involving snorting noises and over-wide opening of the mouth," James says.
As a result, we learn to tailor or suppress it — we laugh in a form we've created for ourselves, either consciously or subconsciously. If we're self-conscious of our teeth, or generally shy around others, we work to cover ourselves as much as possible, thus producing a laugh that's more reserved and probably sounds more professional. That's due to body language.
"If you look at the body language of [a person's] laugh, you can often read aspects of personality, like social suppression, extrovert behaviors or aggression," James says.
Think of the classic Mary Poppins song, "I Love to Laugh": "Some people laugh through their noses ... Some people laugh through their teeth ... Some laugh too fast ... Some only blast ... Others, they twitter like birds..." All of these say something about the laugher's personality and behavior.
A suppressed wheeze of a laugh could indicate intense self-control, for example, while staccato, even unhappy-sounding giggling (Natalie Portman, below?) might indicate nervousness or shyness.
We tend to think we only have one laugh, but James explains that we have many in our repertoire — when it seems like someone's laugh has changed, he or she is just switching to a different one.
"This can be affected by life changes — for instance, if your life gets difficult for any reason, you may find yourself trying harder to mask inner depression or grumpiness to produce a good social laugh. This 'lie' can create a different tone or type," she says.
We're also susceptible to "learned behavior" — we listen to other laughs and mirror them, usually without realizing it.
But we also have to understand that even though our laughs soundcompletely different, they're still similar in fundamental ways. Despite having linguistic properties, laughter isn't as limitless as language.
Although our laughter may be as distinctive as our speech, laughter is not infinitely variable," Robert Provine, research professor and professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tells Mash in an email. "If we all laughed differently, we could not identify a vocalization as laughter."
Provine, who most recently wrote Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccuping and Beyond, says it's best to consider the range of laughter as variations on a theme.
"Most classical laughs have a short, harmonic blast ('ha') of about one-fifteenth of a second duration, that repeats every one-fifth of a second. It's hard to laugh in any other way. Try it," he says.
The result doesn't sound very much like a laugh — at least not a convincing one.
"Linguists, psychologists and philosophers often have trouble dealing with such primal vocalizations, treating laughter as if it's speech. Laughter — and crying — have more in common with the barking of a dog than speech," Provine says.
These "primal vocalizations" might even be inherited. In his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Provine cites anecdotal evidence of identical twins separated at birth and reunited 40 years later — they exhibited similar laugh styles.
"These gleeful twins probably inherited some aspect of their laugh sound and pattern, readiness to laugh and perhaps even taste in humor," Provine writes in the book. However, he says there needs to be further research before we can truly understand the genetic properties of laughter.
But these "giggle twins" bring up another question: Why do laughs seem to vary across age groups?
A lot of it has to do with inhibition. Children, James explains, produce the most spontaneous form of laughter because they lack the inhibitions we acquire later in life. Adults will often cover their mouths, or bend to hide their faces.
"A child will laugh when he is tickled, or thrown into the air or when a parent pulls funny faces. An adult might laugh from schadenfreude, or watching someone else's misfortune," James says.
Whatever makes us laugh, at whatever age, one thing's for sure: "The more you laugh / The more you fill with glee / And the more the glee / The more we're a merrier we."
Tags: HEALTH & FITNESS, HUMAN BEHAVIOR, LAUGHTER, LIFESTYLE, MASHABLE MUST READS, PSYCHOLOGY, WORK & PLAY