Posted by: Prospector PJ4 FEB 2010
Gelotology is the study of a complex and little understood aspect of human behaviours — laughter.
As American gelotologist Robert Provine said: “We know less about human laughter than we do about the calls and songs of some species of birds and nonhuman primates.”
The word “gelotology” can be traced back to 1971, when US newspapers reported on the setting up of the San Francisco Gelotology Institute. Its director William Fry argued, contrary to current thinking, that laughter is bad for health because it increases the heart rate, interrupts normal breathing and may contribute to hernias and ulcers.
The evolutionary origins of laughter have been traced back as far as early hominid groups around two to four million years ago. This was likely to be a staccato panting in response to touches and tickles, similar to the way that apes laugh today. It was not until around two million years ago that our ancestors gained the ability to control their facial expressions, so they could laugh at will as well as spontaneously. Only when humans gained higher cognition and language was laughter connected with humour.
Laughing is generally believed to be a healthy pursuit, with gelotherapists practising humour therapy, clown therapy, laughter meditation and even laughter yoga. But it is not only the physical benefits of laughter that have stimulated gelotologists’ interests.
Margaret Plester, a member of the International Society of Humour Studies, has studied the effects of humour in the workplace. In her paper, “Taking the piss: using banter at work”, she describes humour as an essential coping strategy in high pressure environments.
Comedy directors are well aware of the contagious nature of laughter, but according to an article in American Scientist, an outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika, Tanzania, in 1962 quickly became an epidemic. An isolated fit of laughter in a group of 12- to 18-year-old schoolgirls infected adjacent communities in a six-month epidemic that resulted in school closures.