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Photo of crew at the ImprovAsylumIn " Laughing Matters," psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Robert Provine examines the physiological basis of laughter. In his book LAUGHTER: A Scientific Investigation, Provine proposes that the rhythmic expulsion of air that humans universally recognize as laughter is a primitive form of communication. But just what are we communicating when we laugh?
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ImprovAsylum Microcosm

On an unseasonably warm night in Boston's historic North End, throngs of people loiter on the sidewalks waiting to get into the city's finest Italian restaurants. But down at the end of Hanover Street, people line up for a comedic, not culinary, experience.

Laughter is the oil in the social machine


The ImprovAsylum has been home to some of Boston's most talented- and most spontaneous- performers since 1998. Tonight, a largely twenty-something audience has come to be entertained.

Three men and three women take the stage, weaving audience suggestions into surprisingly polished sketch comedy. When asked to supply a profession, the audience comes up with "postal worker." Two performers posing as amateur video jockeys then supply song genres to two other performers, who spontaneously generate such gospel non-classics as "Fed-ex A Prayer to God," in which one actor rhymes "post" with "Holy Ghost."

The appreciative audience laughs supportively. It's the natural response- but why?

Tracking Wild Laughter

Photo of 2 women laughing
  People laugh 30 times more often with other people than when alone

Many of us assume laughter simply communicates that we find something funny, but Provine's year-long study actually reveals something more. By tracking wild laughter in its natural habitat -shopping malls, restaurants and bars, and on the street- Provine recorded some 1,200 samples of conversational laughter and determined which types of statements got the most laughs. Rarely were these sentences humorous, nor were they even intended to be. Far from punch lines, the most laugh-getting phrases were more along the lines of "nice to meet you," or "see you guys later." From this, Provine concludes that laughter is the oil in the social machine, helping human interactions run more smoothly. And his data reveal something striking about just who adds that oil to the engine.

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4 pages: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 |

Photos: Christina Cohen

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