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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Part I here. Perhaps not necessarily homework, but it would help make sense of the following...


It seems appropriate to open Part II on Laughter by quoting myself (O, Narcisus). In part one I wrote the following:

"But why is this paper an excellent example of Evo Psych? Well, unlike things like vision or attraction or communication, laughter is a unique human quality (well, not quite; but the manner, extent and contexts in which we employ it is unique), and so provides an excellent topic to investigate with a human behaviour evolutionary framework. Second, this topic synthesises huge amounts of data on what we currently know about laughter from many different domains (social psych, positive psych, biological foundations, and neuroscience) and constructs an evolutionary framework that incorporates all of it. Third, it brings together many converging lines of evolutionary evidence (archaeology, comparative studies, etc) to inform their evolutionary hypothesis. And finally, the authors freely admit and highlight the weaknesses of their position, and (crucially) provide a number of predictions inherent in their framework."

I do quote this with reason.  Commenter Yannisguerra, making a serious point in a light-hearted way, took that paragraph and twisted it. His purpose was to level the oft-cited criticism that Evo Psych is frequently just-so stories... a valid point, one which primarily motivated me to write this two-part post.

"Miracles are a unique divine quality (well, not quite; but the manner, extent and contexts in which the divinity employ it is unique), and so provides an excellent topic to investigate with a theological framework. Second, this topic synthesises huge amounts of data on what we currently know about miracles from many different domains (bible studies, bible archaeology, ethics) and constructs a theological framework that incorporates all of it. Third, it brings together many converging lines of theological evidence (archaeology, comparative religious studies, etc) to inform their theological hypothesis. And finally, the authors freely admit and highlight the weaknesses of their position, and ..."

Now I thought I had written an excellent paragraph, one which succinctly summarizes the merits of the work and provides an outline of things to come; and which separates this paper from so much lazy/junk evo psych musings. Yannisguerra posted this and seriously challenged what I thought. Could it be, really, that I'm blind to what constitutes good evidence and bad evidence? Is this a just-so story I've just swallowed whole?

It took me a few days, but I uncovered the fallacy. When I think 'Evo Psych', I think Science. By directly comparing it to Miracles it challenges the validity of my thought, particularly when you can go to source x and y and 'verify' a miracle. My mistake, it seems, was to consider Evo Psych science. While I do believe it is, it should be thought of a source of hypotheses. Miracles, too, are a source of hypotheses. Grandma went into spontaneous remission!? Hurrah, a miracle!... Perhaps not. Grandma's no longer has cancer - let us study grandma to uncover what processes led to her remission. If physical evidence can be found, we cannot parsimoniously invoke the miracle explanation; if evidence can't be found, we may turn to theological understandings, religion, or holy texts. They, however, are poor forms of evidence. But that's a cheap out - what if we took something that was a poor form of evidence - the bible - and treat it as a hypothesis machine....

A great flood killed everyone, for instance. Well, here we can look at Archaeology and Comparative studies (examples cited by Yannisguerra) as well as other sources, like geology. If primary evidence stacks up then we have some confirmation that x (a flood, a miracle) happened. If not, we have (at best) a null result, or at worst, a damning indictment on the quality of the source of hypotheses. Be it a book of anecdotes, or a frame-work of just-so stories.

The point is, and Yannisguerra was quick to uphold the value of my word, is that good Evo Psych (like any good source of hypotheses, including holy texts) make predictions.

And so, without further ramblings and tangents, why this paper was an excellent Evo Psych paper.


The Varied Perspectives


Gervais and Wilson cite evidence from Rizzolatti's (or, The Mirror-Neuron Dude's) lab, which shows (partly) that 'mirror systems' are involved in understanding both action and intention, and are related to motor regions including the mouth. They go on to propose that mirror systems may be involved in facilitating the congruent effects found in laughter (you know, that laughter is contagious). This is qualified, however, by the fact that very little research has looked at the link between laughter and mirror systems. The point they make though is that there is a neurological underpinning that allows us to express and understand what it is to laugh and what it means to hear laughter. I would like to make the point that the Mirror System, as it is popularly understood, deserves as much scrutiny, skepticism and down-right hardballing as Evo Psych does. For whatever reason, however, people let it play.*

Yet Neuroscience and the mirror-system make predictions. In Part I briefly explained some of the brain-regions involved in duchenne laughter.

"Duchenne Laughter originates in subcortical regions and within the brainstem (i.e. phylogentically older brain structures), whereas Non-Duchenne Laughter operates out of the motor, premotor and (crucially) the prefrontal regions (i.e. much more recent structures; and while the motor regions are old the prefrontal regions allow for wilful control over motor functions, including the movement and control of the face)."

Well, it turns out that if you use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) on a region known as the Supplementary Motor Area (SMA) (a region of interest as predicted by the study of mirror systems) then people break-out in laughter. Other areas are involved in organic production of duchenne laughter (affective regions, such as the amygdala), but it's fascinating to consider you can literally have your brain tickled...

The invocation of the mirror system and neuroscience, and some of the predictions they make, are used to create one point of convergence on some of the known functions of laughter. Chiefly, that laughter (can) serve as a social tool, one that elicits congruence and positive affect in others. While some may find explanations of behaviour beyond evolutionary explanation, it is harder to offhandedly dismiss evolutionary explanations of form and function in a biological organ such as the brain.


Positive Psychology and Play Research

I don't know a great deal about positive psychology, but it emerged as a reaction to the historical trend of psychology focusing on disorders and deviations. Positive Psychology originally sought to explain the good things in life, rather than all the things that could go wrong. It typically focuses happy things, like contentment, joy, play, and laughter (and so much more). Since I don't know a great deal about this area, I will quote heavily, so as not to misrepresent (or misunderstand) what's being said.

"Fredrickson [a big player in the positive psych scene] proposes that joy specifically fosters the urge to play, in the broadest sense of the word, and that this play builds resources while promoting social cohesion, cooperation, and even altruism."

This quote was given in reference to positive emotions (such as those aroused by, and expressed through, laughter) having beneficial effects on an individual’s resilience to stressful events. Though Positive Psychology is duly influence by evolutionary approaches, it is generally more geared towards social perspectives than anything else (where it is used to investigate things like gender, marriage, aging, personality, and altruism, etc.).

Play research, on the other hand, is very much informed by cognitive and developmental models.

"The most widely accepted function for play entails the facilitation of physical, cognitive, and emotional development (Byers and Walker 1995; Spinka et al. 2001), particularly in juvenile organisms (Fagen 1993). Play functions to  promote synaptogenesis and muscle differentiation (Byers and Walker 1995) while training individuals to deal with unexpected physical, cognitive, and emotional stressors (Spinka et al. 2001; Donaldson et al. 2002). Social play can also decrease aggression (Drea et al. 1996), increase fairness and cooperation (Bekoff 2001), and it can be used as a tool for social assessment and for promoting the establishment and maintenance of social bonds (Pellis and Iwaniuk 2000)."

Why quote this? Well, Ramachandran - best known for his study of truly freaky disorders like Phantom Limb Syndrome, Synaesthesia, and Capgras Delusion - has begun dabbling in other fields, including Evo Psych. He argues that Duchenne-Laughter may serve an evolutionary function that alerts others that a 'potentially threatening situation' has been averted, is not so, or has been resolved. I'm not sure I agree entirely with this idea, yet a little anecdotal evidence can easily illuminate his point.

Think back to a time when you've watched someone fall over... several things might have happened a) you laughed, they got up and called you a dick, then you went on with your lives; b) you laughed, realized they'd twisted their ankle, quickly shut up and then rushed to their aid; or c) you realize that they might have really hurt themselves, and quickly moved to help without even considering a giggle. Additionally, you can almost certainly recall a time that was incredibly threatening (perhaps a car accident or a potential mugging/fight) that, once resolved without harm, resulted in the expression of nervous laughter.

Yes, it's certainly impossible to go back and uncover the original functions of laughter in proto-humans; however it's not impossible to take an idea based on an evolutionary hypothesis and subject it to contemporary scrutiny. Do people laugh when a potentially serious situation is proven otherwise? I'm not sure, but it's easy enough to study.

.... to address the question posed a paragraph back, why quote from the play literature?

"The neuroanatomical mechanism through which play and tickling elicited laughter in apes was thereby evolutionarily broadened in hominids, such that “playful” stimuli were decontextualized from the physical act of social play itself, and Duchenne laughter could be triggered by a more generalized type of nonserious social incongruity. Such a connection between stimulus and context need not have been present in the minds of perceiving hominids, but the tendency to react in such a way to a stimulus—the key to the evolution of adaptive emotions (Cosmides and Tooby 2000)—would have been selected for and preserved by the correlation in nature between nonserious social incongruity and safe situations. In short, hominids became more playful through an evolutionary process that made more aspects of experience appreciable as “funny.” We can recognize this today in the extent to which play permeates our social and developmental lives, earning humans the nickname “Homo ludens” (Bjorkland and Pelligrini 2002)....

… Due to the costs imposed on individuals who were slow to utilize safe and satiated situations, such generalized nonserious social incongruity would have been selected to be a potent distal elicitor of laughter, positive emotion, and play. The broadening of the laughter trigger thereby converted some stimuli—such as near accidents, flatulence and excretion, and sexual mischief—from potential sources of social stress to elicitors of social play and positive emotion."


Duchenne Laughter is tied to both the Play and Positive Psychology literature. It creates (alerts others to?) a situation in which play and positive affect are generated and elicited. It serves to attenuate negative affect present and promotes social functionality. As play in children is a considered functional, it may be that laughter too can be considered functional.

As with the arguments from the mirror systems / neuroscience literature, alone the argument may not be convincing. Yet it is another source of evidence that converges on some of the evolutionary utility of laughter.

Additionally, it makes an elegant prediction:

People who are most receptive to the affect inducing properties of laughter, experience a physiological or reproductive benefit.

… Though I’m not going to look for the answer to that question, we do know that:

  1. Laughter can ‘undo’ negative affect
  2. Laughter can improve affect
  3. Laughter can mitigate the effects of stressful events
  4. Laughter promote various health benefits (quick link)
  5. People like you more when you laugh (quick link)
  6. People find duchenne laughter attractive (quick link)
  7. By logical extension, those who laugh are more able to improve affect in others. I don’t feel it’s much of a leap to then argue people like being around those who laugh and who make us laugh…
  8. And, well… there’s this.

These factors can contribute to the variation in one’s health, social status, social competence and (arguably) mating success. How would we test this? Well, we could find people who are not receptive to laughter (perhaps tumour patients, low-end ASD folk) and look at their health, social factors, life outcomes, and reproductive success. Yes, it’s correlational; it’s the first step in assessing preliminary predictions.


Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives

Pan Troglodyte, or the Chimpanzee, is the closest living relative of Homo Sapiens. I think there is the general tendency of people to consider Chimps and Humans as evolutionary siblings, even twins - a product of essentially the same environment and parents. It’s probably more appropriate to consider Chimps and Humans second cousins. There is roughly ~ 5 - 7 million years of separate evolution between us. It’s not that some proto-chimp animal existed from which we branched off and built rockets to the moon, while they hung-out and learned to poke each-other with sticks. No, there was some proto-homo-trogo monkey animal from which we both derived. We, however, ended up on the moon and they learned to fish for termites with twigs.

Therefore, any comparisons made between human and chimps reflect two divergent evolutionary paths extending 5 - 7,000,000 years in each direction. This can, however, lead to powerful inferences. As much as we have eyes, and chimps have eyes, so too do most mammals, reptiles and birds. Now instead of every species independently evolving eyes to solve the problem of visual environmental awareness it is more parsimonious to conclude that some common ancestor evolved a solution to that problem which was passed on (and separately adapted) to most living vision-capable organisms today.

So, when the claim is made that duchenne laughter is derived from the chimpanzee play-face and pant-vocalizations it means something like a common ancestor evolved some trait (say, a physiological response to positive stimulus) which shares characteristics with two separate but related contemporary instances (say, pant and play face in chimps, and ritualized vocalizations in humans) (this is known as Homology).

Gervais and Wilson cite evidence that the affective circuitry which underlies laughter is not only common to all great apes, but is ‘ubiquitous among mammals’ and ‘forms the foundations of many affiliative and social-play behaviours’. They limit their argument to the degree change in humour and laughter in humans and apes, and do not concern themselves with the ultimate origins of the behaviour.

So, the first point in tying down the human evolution of laughter lies in the last common ancestor between all apes who have homologous laugh behaviours.  Proto-laughter and proto-humour can be inferred to have emerged not after the 5 – 7 million year marker, when the Great Apes began to diverge.

The next point is, in part, differentiating laughter from proto-laughter. Chimps do not have voluntary control over their breathing or vocalizations. Humans do. The difference lies in our hardware, not our software – even if chimps wanted to control their breathing/vocalizations (or more likely, if humans wanted to teach them how to do so) it couldn’t be done. We can because we, at some point in our history, decoupled our breathing from movement. This occurred when we stood up and began walking on two legs about 4 million years ago. This point in history, literally, may have been one small step for an Australopithecus , but one giant leap for mankind.**

This change, this decoupling of breathe, also facilitated a little thing called language. However it is argued the ‘ritualization’ of laughter occurred well before the comparatively more complex and unprecedented development of proto-language. By what evidence? Well, the brain regions required for language are largely separate from those that are associated with duchenne laughter. Early laughter would have been tied to physical and visual stimulus, such as the play-fighting, tickling, and incongruence discussed previously. Language, on the other hand, required a couple million more years of encephalization (occurring ~2mya, with Homo Habilis).

By narrowing down the time-frame in which human laughter became laughter the authors can narrow down what other influences may have come to bear upon it.  As such, laughter can be inferred to have emerged sometime between 2 – 4 million years ago.


Evolutionary Psychology Considerations

Levels of laughter apparently are highly dependent on levels of satiety and safety. With regard to safety reconsider the ‘slip and fall’ example previously. If it seems that safety is violated we laugh, but if there does appear to be a threat (to us or our friend) we abstain from laughter. Furthermore, it is known that perceptions of safety in infants determine if a child will laugh or cry unexpectedly in social situations.

Crying is an interesting side note… if we consider what constitutes crying, it fits neatly with the description of what a ritualized vocalization is:

In the process of ritualization, a signal changes in structure so that it is more prominent and unmistakable, and thus more readily perceptible (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989; Grammer and Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1990). This occurs through the simplification of a signal via the addition of rhythmic repetition, an exaggerated amplitude, and stereotypic structure. The releasing threshold of a signal is also lowered during ritualization.

Cited in Gervais & Wilson, 2005

Could it be that crying and laughing are sides of the same coin? Infants when tickled or rough-housed by a parent, sibling, or familiar safe ‘other’ will laugh. Infants, when tickled or rough-housed by someone perceived as threatening, will cry their little baby heads off.

Based on the point about satiety, I suspect (and I’ve had very little contact with infants) that the baby will cry or laugh at the same stimulus from the same person depending on their level of satiety. Unfortunately the paper doesn’t report on this idea.

And so, as with the neuroscience, the play and the positive psychology stuff, another line of information converges on the modern human behaviour of laughter.

I won’t go into any detail on this next thought, because I feel it stands self-evident, but if I’ll press I’ll return to the paper and re-post. Today we laugh at the same old things, but also at abstract ideas in jokes and in humour. As language, concept anchoring and abstract thought grew in sophistication humour began to apply to non-physical and non-threat-related stimuli. It’s not hard to conceive of the benefits of finding that laughter-as-a-social-tool was appropriated from its origins to become increasingly socially valuable, even to the point where laughter becomes a characteristic that helps us attract a mate.


Predictions and falsification

Here I quote limitation:

The level of historical detail that we incorporated into the first part of our argument is contentious but potentially stands to be rebutted. This would be contingent upon a closer analysis by physical anthropologists of hominoids and hominid fossils reliably dated from the middle Pliocene. … we did not discuss the specific fossil evidence of such a transition other than noting the evidence for bipedalism by 4 mya. Neither did we discuss the larynx, to which changes might have needed to occur in order for laughter to go from pant-like to “voiced.” Although laughter should not have required the same types of morphological changes as language (for instance alterations to the tongue, palate, and teeth to allow for the production of phonemes), some changes to the basicranial structure of hominid skulls would perhaps still have been needed. These changes, if in fact necessary to our account, should be observable in the fossil record. We say “if necessary” because the actual physical requirements of human laughter have not been established, and so a collaboration of anatomists, biophysicists, and paleoanthropologists is apparently in order. It should be noted, however, that even the anatomical prerequisites of speech have proven hard to infer from the fossil record (see Fitch 2000).


Gervais and Wilson further illustrate some limitations in the evidence the provided relating to the neuroscience and neurophysiology they cite.


Here I quote predictions:


On our account, negative affect follows from laughter perception only insofar as one infers, based on knowledge of  the laughter and context, that perceived laughter is aggressive or derisive. For this reason, we predict that the  perception of laughter that induces negative affect should activate prefrontal and temporo-parietal areas involved in such Theory of Mind tasks as belief attribution (see Saxe et al. 2004). We also predict that “mind-reading” abilities should not be necessarily required for the perception of all laughter inducing stimuli, since we argue that laughter was first ritualized prior to the evolution of a full human Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen 1999).We might predict  something of a “continuum of activation” in which mind-reading abilities are progressively more activated as one moves from infant laughter to tickle- and play-induced laughter to physical humor and finally to formal symbolic humor. This stands in contrast to the work of Jung (2003), which predicts that mind-reading ability is involved in all laughter.

Gervais and Wilson then go on to outline further predictions and potential methodologies for experimentation.


And so, why did I think this was a kick-arse evo psych paper? Well, I’d argue they did their homework. It wasn’t just a ‘laughter is useful, and so it evolved’ argument. They went back, tied it down to a time frame, established why it was useful, how it was useful, investigated the mechanisms, incorporated a variety of different perspectives and produced some interesting questions.

It’s not perfect, a point they freely admit. The even discuss what would challenge their case. But as with all science, any [new] theoretical framework seeks to best explain. It is not a list of answers, but a list of questions.

New frameworks – in this case Evo Psych - emerge that are hoped to better explain observable events. New frameworks are not new answers, but new questions. The observations that result from these new questions infrequently supersede old observations, but usually just add another layer of understanding. An increase in the resolution of ideas. Sometimes they don’t, and are appropriately discarded after enough evidence has mounted to the contrary.

Evo Psych seeks to do these things. There are good and bad examples of what evolutionary psychology is, and I certainly feel that this is an excellent example of what evolutionary psychology is, and how it should be perceived. In dissecting a bad evo paper recently I made the comparison between Evo Psychology and Astrobiology. There are those who do good astrobiology, and those who do bad astrobiology. Instance of bad astrobiology, like bad evo psych, do not delegitimize the questions they seek to ask; nor do they necessarily delegitimize the predictions and observations generated. Both are tough adversarial areas of research, and both a misrepresented by great variation in the quality of their work and the way the public perceives them.

This post – this unexpectedly novel-length post – is what I think good evo psych is. It’s long, I suppose, because doing something right takes a lot of time. Gervais and Wilson produced an epic synthesis on the topic of laughter, and I have (with my humble efforts) sought to communicate it simply to everyone.  And I certainly hope that should they stumble upon this, that they do not object to my heavy quoting their work – for the record anything italicized and centred is not my own work.


* perhaps it is conceived that behaviour is easily understood, yet the brain is beyond comprehension… even though both are subject to myriad factors including genetic, biological and environmental influences.

**sorry, couldn’t resist.


Gervais M, & Wilson DS (2005). The evolution and functions of laughter and humor: a synthetic approach. The Quarterly review of biology, 80 (4), 395-430 PMID: 16519138

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Sadly I was not able to see this article at the time you published it (stupid work interfering with my interwebs!)

I think the issue of Evo-Psych value is always going to be a contentious one. First, because a lot of people don't want it to be true, whatsoever. I would say that as long as human beings are part of nature, and interact with each other and with other species with our brains, there will be evolutionary forces affecting it.

My main issue against it is that it is by definition so hard to test. Obviously that shouldn't be a limitation in any science (that is what is actually cool) but sometimes I wonder if we have the philosophical approach behind the basic assumptions of it, making the statements untestable not by the nature of the subject, but by the nature of the approach

I think for now I will only link to Massimo Pigliucci( ) that articulates my issues with Evo-Psych much better than what I could.

But anyways great job Psy, the weakness of the discipline does not reflect in the strength of your post (although I am obviously biased for!)


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Haha. Well, I'm glad I made a coherent job of it. I'll check out that link asap.




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The link to part 1 is not working.Can you please fix it?

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