Gelotology: A laughing matter

Gelotology: A laughing matter

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When I hear my daughters laugh, it is one of the best sounds in the world. Their laughter is closely being monitored by my family because I have my dad’s very unmistakable laugh and we wonder if the girls will develop it. For this monitoring, we try to make them laugh every chance we have.

For Marley all we need to do is act like we are going to tickle her, and for Isla all we need to do is make a face. It seems it is too early to determine if they will have the “Hunter” laugh but it has raised some questions such as what is laughter, what causes us to laugh and can laughter actually be medicine? There has been a lot of research put into this field termed gelotology, which for me is a name difficult not to laugh at.

Gelotologists have actually found a number of different health benefits from laughing, stress relief being one of them. Laughter also can strengthen the immune system and reduce food cravings. Knowing these benefits, I want to make sure I maximize my laughing, so I need to know what causes us to laugh so I can laugh more.

Age has a big impact on what people find funny or not. Almost everything is new to Marley and Isla, and as a result, many of their interactions seem ridiculous and surprising, which they in turn find funny. The older we get the more experiences we have and sadly these help “mature” our sense of humor.

Where we live impacts what we deem funny. If there is a joke about a political figure in a town we do not live in, it makes sense we may not understand the joke. When we do find a joke humorous, we laugh not only because it is funny but because it is a way we can strengthen human connections. As I was researching for this column, I read something I found worth sharing: Laughter is a universal language.

Laughing at something and laughing because you are being tickled are two entirely different things. To fully understand why we laugh when we are tickled a very brief description of touch is necessary.

When we feel something brush our arms, we feel it because of our somatosensory system. Sensory neurons respond to external stimuli. At the ends are nerve endings called receptors. These receptors pick up on the external stimuli and carry it to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to process.

Laughing in response to tickling is thought to be our bodies’ defense to creepy crawly things. This helps explain why we are unable to tickle ourselves, we know it is coming and from where.

When I tickle Isla and Marley, they see me coming but do not exactly know where I will focus my tickle attack. I am going to have to stay on my game and keep surprising them in hopes that we can determine if they have Hunter laugh!

Professor Science, Kyle Hunter, is lead science educator at Helena’s ExplorationWorks museum.



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