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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.1 (2003) 145-148
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Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. By Robert R. Provine. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Pp. x + 258. $14.
Laughter is a ubiquitous human vocalization, a vestige of prelinguistic forms of social communication, which, if it were not so familiar, would seem rather bizarre. Why do we emit these rhythmic, raucous noises, accompanied by spasms of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles, strange facial grimaces, brightening of the eyes, and often violent rocking of the body and shaking of the extremities? In this book, Robert Provine, a biological psychologist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, presents the results of 10 years of exploration into this little-understood phenomenon. The book is written in a breezy, highly readable style that is aimed at the general public but is also evidently intended as a resource for more serious scientists.
Those who are unfamiliar with the research literature on laughter and humor will find here a number of interesting observations and tidbits of information: laughter is primarily a social rather than a solitary phenomenon; in natural conversation, speakers laugh more than their audience; women laugh more at things that men say than vice versa; laughter tends to occur at the end of sentences and phrases rather than in the middle; we frequently laugh at comments that are not obviously funny; laughter is contagious; and you can't tickle yourself. Based on these and other findings relating to human (as well as chimpanzee) laughter, Provine proposes a number of hypotheses and speculates about the implications for our understanding of neuroscience, evolution, and human sociobiology.
Unfortunately, although the aims of the book are laudable, it suffers from several limitations. The self-congratulatory and polemical tone of the book is unfortunate and rather disconcerting. From the start, we learn that Provine views himself as a pioneer, one who came to a field of study that was mired in a confusion of philosophical musings and shoddy social science methodologies, and who, by taking a more sophisticated ethological and neuroscience approach, brings order and understanding to the field, making startling new [End Page 145] discoveries with far-reaching implications. His dismissal of previous theories and investigations of humor continues as a sort of subtext running through the book, as he never passes up the opportunity to take a swipe at philosophers and social scientists.
Putting up with some academic arrogance and internecine sniping might be a small price to pay for new insights based on more rigorous and sophisticated research methods. However, Provine's research methods (which he refers to as "sidewalk neuroscience") turn out to be far from rigorous. As described in the first half of the book, his original contributions to the science of laughter amount to a handful of rather informal studies conducted with the help of a cadre of enthusiastic undergraduate students. Most of his original data were derived from a year-long observational study in which he had several college students take note of instances of laughter while eavesdropping on conversations between pairs of people in public places such as cafeterias and shopping malls. Other investigations, which replicated the methods of previous researchers (although this fact is not acknowledged by Provine), include: a self-monitoring study in which he had participants keep a record of their laughter (as well as smiling and talking) over a period of time; an examination of references to humor and laughter in personal ads published in several major newspapers; and an acoustical analysis of recorded samples of laughter. In describing these studies, he shows little concern for the sorts of methodological details typically addressed in empirical research, such as reliability, validity, statistical tests of significance, control groups, and replication. Additional information comes from a visit to a primate research center to observe and record chimpanzee laughter, classroom demonstrations of laugh-boxes and foot-tickling, a description of musical notations of laughter in operatic scores, and numerous anecdotes derived from the media. This looks more like a journalistic enterprise than a rigorous, systematic, and programmatic series of scientific investigations. Indeed, Provine acknowledges...