The Joy of Your Brain… and the Dark Side of Laughter

(Anup Shah/The Image Bank/Getty Images)

A "seemingly quirky finding" peers into animal minds. It may also help show how Nazis abused play and laughter to horrid ends.

Nature's Edge Notebook #19

Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions

What is it like to be a squirrel?

Or, say, a bat… or a giraffe, or a chickadee?

Suppose you could actually feel what it's like to be another animal … not just guess, after observing its actions and behavior from the outside, but actually break through the prison of subjectivity - both yours and the squirrel's - and know you can feel it, as if from inside the squirrel's brain.

Of course, no two species have exactly the same set of sensory inputs. For example, we lack the bat's special sonic radar, its "echolocation" systems. So ultimately we humans could only guess what it's fully "like."

But one scientist's "seemingly quirky finding" - that rats emit a sort of giggling laughter when they are tickled by humans - is opening a new path for scientists and philosophers in their quest to answer this ancient question.

It's all about emotion, and especially joy, that great reward in the brain, which, once experienced, we then naturally seek to achieve again … and which can help "make life worth living."

As a result of their discovery that tickling rats makes them laugh, brain scientist Jaak Panksepp and his colleagues are now producing what they hope will prove to be more effective anti-depressants - chemicals that not only dull negative feelings, but safely enhance positive ones.

Their work on how play and laughter can automatically produce the feeling of joy in the brain may also help clarify the difference between the artificially induced "high" produced by addictive drugs and the true "joy" that may be produced naturally and safely.

On the dark side, his work on animal laughter offers insights into how the group-bonding effects of play behavior may be susceptible to manipulation for cruel ends. It seems to illuminate such abuses as the Nazi's manipulation of the Olympic Games to advance racist ideology, and even an infamous anti-Semitic board game marketed in Hitler's Germany in 1936.

The Hunt For Hard Evidence

To believe that you may well be able to "feel" at least something of what it's "like" to be another kind of animal would, of course, need some sort of evidence that your feelings and those of the other animal could be reasonably presumed to be in any way the same  and that you experience those similar feelings in similar ways - be they in a human and a squirrel, or a human and a bat …  or a salamander, or a Dover sole on the floor of the English Channel, or a goldfish in a fishbowl on a dresser peering down at a sleeping child.

After Panksepp made his delightful discovery in the 1990s that rats emit repeated chirps of laughter when tickled (as seen in this brief video in our previous Nature's Edge Notebook), he and his team began to suspect they might just have discovered a way to get rats (and eventually perhaps other animals) to, in effect, tell us what they were feeling … and even, in a sense, something of what it is generally like to be a rat or a race horse or a three-wattled bell-bird.

( To see and hear a three-wattled bell-bird make its otherworldly "bell call"… and ponder what it might be like to be that bellbird, you can watch a brief tree-top video here.)

Some scientists are even playing with the idea that the happily chirping lab rats might eventually lead the way to new notions of how consciousness itself, or at least the general feeling of awareness, might be similar, if not exactly the same, in many species.

Towards a Solid Science of the Emotional Feelings of Animals (though other neuroscientists remain doubtful)

In an email to ABC News, Panksepp explains that his team is still exploring the chirping laughter of tickled lab rats 15 years after they discovered it, partly because "the laughter response … allows us to monitor the positive affective states (feelings) of animals objectively."

He speaks of his "intent in really making a solid science of this seemingly quirky finding, … a science of the emotional feelings of animals … as opposed to just (of their) behaviors."

Panksepp says that "most neuroscientists are still dead-set against talking about the feelings of animals - as if it were just a matter of opinion, as opposed to a conclusion based on the weight of abundant evidence."

Enter his ticklish laughing rats.

In experiment after experiment, Panksepp's labs have found them reacting to the feelings of joy in ways similar to humans and (apparently) other animals - seeking it out, "self-stimulating" for it, sometimes in ways that even demonstrate that such play-induced joy may have a "liability to addiction."

If Panksepp is right, his rats could, in effect, be laughing in the faces of those scientists who, he says, still "deem the emotional feelings of animals to be outside the bounds of empirical measurement."

His discovery that his rats' laughter arises from inborn structures deep in the brain, combined with years of experiments to determine what sort of activity and other stimulation does and does not produce "rat vocalizations" (laughing chirps), has led Panksepp to declare (in the journal "Future Neurology") that the happy chirps may indeed "be used as direct readouts of emotional states."

What Pet Owners May Already 'Know'

This may all seem rather obvious to pet owners, in a non-scientific sort of way.

They often report that they and their beloved dogs or cats share mutual languages rich in vocabularies of an endless variety of modulated meows and purrs, yips and barks, growls and groans, sweet whimpers, sly screeches, subtle hums, and half-gurgles, ruffs, gruffs and rawls.

These subtly varied sounds, say pet owners, communicate emotions common to human and cat, or human and dog - and even, they claim, can convey not only emotions but plain and practical "intellectual ideas" involving food, shelter, and the need for creative play, as well as observations about important disruptions in the status quo.

But after years of steady work in his lab, Panksepp says he and his colleagues can now present something far more testable - more scientific - than the declarations of happy pet owners.

They report that they have now tracked communicative sounds (at least in rats, but with well-established and reasonable analogues in other animals including humans) to the specific deep-brain structures that produce specific emotions.

For his fellow scientists, he labels these sounds "validated emotional vocalizations."

If you're not a scientist, you can get a sense of their work - have a bit of fun, engage in a little word play - by reading just the titles of three of the jargon-rich and peer-reviewed scientific articles in which he and his team have reported these findings over the years.

Don't be afraid.

This reporter is certainly no scientist either, but I find that if you read these titles slowly and calmly, they start to make sense pretty quickly:

"'Laughing rats' and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?" (Panksepp and Bergdorf in Physiology & Behavior, 4/2003.)

"Cross-Species Affective Neuroscience Decoding of the Primal Affective Experiences of Humans and Related Animals." (Panksepp in PLoS Public Library of Science  9/2011)

(That phrase, "Primal Affective Experiences," refers roughly to basic emotions or feelings that evolved long ago in various species… including in those animals that eventually evolved into the likes of us.)

And if you're really feeling frisky, try this:

"Frequency-modulated 50 kHz ultrasonic vocalizations: a tool for uncovering the molecular substrates of positive affect" (Burgdorf, Panksepp, Moskal in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews35 / 2011)

(Rough translation: how "ultrasonic vocalizations" - i.e., the laughter of tickled rats - may help lead scientists to find "molecular substrates of positive affect"  - i.e., those structures in the brain that help make you feel good.)

'The Dark Side of Laughter'… and 'An Ancient Heritage'

The study of laughter and play has a long lineage.

Many philosophers have offered their insights. Aristotle and Plato wrote that laughter showed derision, asserted superiority.

The Bible's Book of Proverbs says, "a merry heart doeth good like a medicine."

Modern writer Umberto Eco built an entire detective novel around, among other things, the subversive power of laughter:

Eco's "The Name of the Rose," set in a remote monastery in medieval Liguria in the coastal mountains of northwest Italy, circles around the vexed (for some) theological question of whether Jesus Christ ever laughed.

(Some grouchy monks apparently just couldn't stand the idea, thought it dangerous.)

In their 2003 article above, "' Laughing rats' and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy?" , Panksepp and Burgdorf assert that there has been little meaningful scientific work on the nature and purpose of laughter since French physician Laurent Joubert published his "Treatise on Laughter" in 1579, until now.

This fascinating article is not all that hard to read - at least the one-paragraph summary "Abstract" at the beginning.

It also tells how it all started - how one day, sometime "during the spring in 1997, the senior author came to the Lab, and suggested to the junior author, 'Let's go tickle some rats.' "

In considering the nature and the mystery of human laughter, they remark on the fact that laughter first appears in human babies soon after birth, and thus seems to be inborn:

They say the fact that the "vocal pattern of human laughter, that first appears in rudimentary form at 2-3 months of age, suggests an ancient heritage."

In other words, that laughter seems to have evolved long ago in animals far more "primitive" than us, and survived through the bloody struggles of natural selection (only the fittest making it to pass on their laughter-loving DNA)… making survival more likely, and thus being "preserved" (kept) by evolution right up to the modern human, to say nothing of the modern lab rat.

All of which suggests that laughter can help confer a powerful advantage in the world's hard struggles in which an animal must stay alive long enough to pass on its genes… otherwise why would laughter be so widespread and long-lived down through the great eons of time?

A sobering section in the article is headed, "… And the dark side of laughter."

It cites evidence that "Usually the children that prevail in play tend to laugh the most, suggesting that, to some extent, laughter may reflect a social dominance-seeking response, which may pave the way for laughter to stigmatize and degrade others through such behavior."

The authors also evoke painful playground memories:

"All too often, especially in children, laughter tends to become a psychological tool for teasing and taunting - the establishment of exclusionary group identities that can set the stage for finding mirth in the misfortunes of others. These tendencies may arise rather naturally from the fact that within-group laughter promotes group solidarity, which can then be used to ostracize and exhibit scorn toward those outside the group."

They are careful to say: "We doubt if most other animals are capable of exhibiting such psychological tendencies, but such possibilities certainly need to be considered in future research…"

But they go on to cite other studies of human laughter and play that open the possibility of play behavior (and the instinctive inborn laughter and joy that attends it) being used even for horrendous ends, since laughter "can also serve as the basis for social ridicule."

An Insight Into the Horrors of Hitler?

We asked a scholar of the Third Reich, Professor Geoffrey Cocks, author of several books on psychiatry and medicine in Hitler's Germany, for his general thoughts about whether play and laughter might have been enlisted in that regime's development - something that might resonate with the above description of how "within-group laughter promotes group solidarity, which can then be used to ostracize and exhibit scorn toward those outside the group."

Cocks replied to ABC News in an email that "First, there is a sequence in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) in which Hitler Youth at the 1934 Nuremberg rally are shown at play: one scene shows boys being tossed high in the air off a tarpaulin and another scene shows 'chariot races' with two boys the 'horses' and another standing on their backs as the 'charioteer.'"

Director Riefenstahl's infamous propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" shows Hitler's massively choreographed rallies in Nuremburg - enormous plays of pageantry - apparently reinforcing group solidarity.

She followed it with her 1938 film "Olympia," which depicts the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin Germany as a similarly cohesive display of imputed German "Aryan" racial superiority, displayed through the muscular German teamwork in these "games."

The film was advertised with a poster of happily smiling young blond women.

Cocks also suggested a possible example of the abuse of play in the Hitler Youth: "It is true that the Nazi youth organizations in particular did put a special emphasis on physical activity, including play, as a means of 'toughening' Germany's youth as well promoting solidarity."

He added this grim note:

"There were board games in Nazi Germany that were designed to strengthen racial and national resolve. The most infamous was the board game Juden Raus! ["Out With the Jews!"] (1936), in which the object was to collect the most Jews and throw them out of town."

But a quick check online, after Googling the three words "Nazi board games," suggests some ironic news about the limits of this dark side of play and laughter.

It seems that the board game " Juden Raus!" was an "unsuccessful commercial product," attempting to ride the wave of official anti-Semitism and racism that was being whipped up by Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

Ironically, according to citations in recent historical research, this board game was "criticized by an SS journal that felt it trivialized anti-Semitic policies."

Perhaps not serious enough? - And let's have no laughter; you never know where it might be redirected?

Did even the mere possibility of fun and play, whatever might trigger it, frighten the SS as being somehow too free?

Modern play studies find abundant evidence that play has evolved to keep brains and minds open and flexible, free to consider a wide range of options - something dictators might well fear.

'By and Large a Grim and Humorless Group'

In any case, Cocks, while noting that "It may well be that the subject of laughter and humor as a weapon of exclusion under Nazism is a subject waiting to be explored," does reflect that the Nazis "were by and large a grim, humorless group."

Which is, of course, in no way to say that they might not still have won World War Two. History tells of many victories by grim and humorless leaders who led brutal regimes.

But we instinctively sense a big difference between derisive vaunting laughter that excludes and truly joyful laughter that seems evidence of open-heartedness, the kind of laughter we'd find it hard to imagine in a cruel despot.

It seems that something in addition to "mere play" - perhaps from brain structures that promote empathy and sympathy - needs to moderate pure play if it is to resist abuse for cruel ends.

A Possible Explanation of the Modern 'Roast'

As Panksepp and Burgdorf point out, the neurobiological study of laughter (and its attendant emotion, joy) as inborn impulses of the brain - both seated deeply in the brainstem right alongside other basic impulses including fear, lust and rage - is in its infancy.

But they do offer a hint about our society's evolving use of laughter as a way to keep dominant personalities from taking themselves too seriously, which can always be a dangerous characteristic, especially in potential role models.

They point out the complex play of dominance and group-building in a recent comic invention that might have been incomprehensible to some past cultures that took dominance very seriously - the modern "roast."

"In adults, most laughter occurs in the midst of simple friendly social interactions while greeting and 'ribbing' each other rather than in response to explicit verbal jokes," they write in the "'laughing' rats…" article:

"The two are brought together in our institution of 'roasting' those we love and admire: The more dominant the targets of the roast, the more mirth there is to be had at their good-humored expense."

It may lead you to think of the annual Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, D.C.

In it, the president of the richest and most powerful country on earth is expected to publicly suffer probing jibes of wit and humor - possibly even offer some of his own - to the accompaniment of a great deal of merry laughter, that fertile signal of instructive play in which, say scientists, we learn a great deal about each other … knowledge that may be vital when, all together, we must face some future crisis.


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This is the ninth in a series on animal intelligence and the science of play behavior :

1-   " Hunting With a Most Endangered Hunter - Dateline Botswana" At:     (Nature's Edge Notebook #11)

2-  "Dogs Use Subway, Cat Takes Bus…" At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #12)

3-  "Who Needs Words? Crows?  You? Wild Gorillas? Alison Krauss? …" At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #13)

4-   "How Would a Prairie Dog Describe You? Just Ask One!" At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #14)

5-  "Dolphins Reported Talking Whale in Their Sleep: Freud's 'Royal Road to the unconscious'  may have surfaced at a pool in France." At:     (Nature's Edge Notebook #15)

6-  "Fun and Play Are Key to Survival for Bears, Dogs, Humans, Birds, and Maybe Even Ants." At:    (Nature's Edge Notebook #16)

7- " Is Universe Made to Make You Giggle? Play Seen in Humans, Fish, Atoms, and the Universe. A Self-Organizing Quirkiness" is suspected by experts in nature itself …   from ants to atoms to distant galaxies." At:   ( Nature's Edge Notebook #17)

8-  "Lessons Learned by Tickling Rats. Chirping Rats and Stand-up Comics: Play and laughter is found deep in the brain stem alongside rage and lust." At:  (Nature's Edge Notebook #18)