Friday, September 11, 2009

The biology of shared laughter and emotion

"It's almost impossible not to laugh when everybody else is," writes psychologist Frans de Waal, in his new book "The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society."

Natural History Magazine offers an excerpt of the book:

"The infectiousness of laughter even works across species. Below my office window at the Yerkes Primate Center, I often hear my chimps laugh during rough-and-tumble games, and cannot suppress a chuckle myself. It’s such a happy sound. Tickling and wrestling are the typical laugh triggers for apes, and probably the original ones for humans. The fact that tickling oneself is notoriously ineffective attests to its social significance. And when young apes put on their “play face” (as the laugh expression is known), their friends join in with the same expression as rapidly and easily as humans do with laughter.

"Shared laughter is just one example of our primate sensitivity to others. We aren’t Robinson Crusoes, sitting on separate islands; we’re all interconnected, both bodily and emotionally. This may be an odd thing to say in the West, with its tradition of individualism and liberty, but members of the species Homo sapiens are easily swayed in one emotional direction or another by their fellows.
"That is where empathy and sympathy start—with the synchronization of bodies—not in the higher regions of imagination, or in the ability to consciously reconstruct how we would feel if we were in someone else’s 'shoes.' And yet empathy is often presented as a voluntary process, requiring role taking, higher cognition, and even language. Accordingly, most scholarly literature on empathy is completely human centered, never mentioning other animals. As if a capacity so visceral and pervasive could be anything other than biological! To counter such widespread views, I decided to investigate how chimpanzees relate to and learn from one another."
Read the full excerpt in Natural History. You can also read reviews of "The Age of Empathy" in the Economist and New Scientist.

Related story:
Wolves in political clothing

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