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There Are Many Types of Laughter, but What Causes Nervous Laughter?

There Are Many Types of Laughter, but What Causes? on

Laughter is an expression of social emotion. In an embarrassing situation, that unstoppable laughter may simply be our way of communicating with others that we agree about the discomfort of the moment.

There’s nothing wrong with you. Witnessing something embarrassing happen – especially if you are in a group – may give you a case of the giggles. We don’t mean to do it, but there’s just no stopping it. One person lets a short laugh slip out, and it’s contagious. Soon we’re all cracking up. What’s up with that?

Spoiler alert: Science has yet to come up with a definitive answer. But, while the search continues, we have discovered that laughter is important to our psychological and emotional well-being – even if it remains relatively misunderstood.

Nervous laughter

According to neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, we may laugh at embarrassing things which happen to others because it’s a physical reaction that helps us decide the thing we just saw isn’t as bad as it appears. He notes that this type of laughter comes from the throat, rather than the belly. It may stem from our need to project dignity or control during a moment of anxiety.

Psychologist Alex Lickerman’s research leads him to conclude that people laugh when exposed to witnessing other’s pain because it’s a defense mechanism used to prevent overwhelming anxiety. It’s our way of diminishing the suffering caused by a traumatic event.

If this seems a bit odd, think about the last time you engaged with an obviously shy or bashful person. It’s likely that they giggled or engaged in a bit of nervous laughter. It may have been a subconscious response to help them project dignity or control because of social anxiety.

That might help to explain unintentional giggles when embarrassing things happen – but why does it seem to be amplified when we’re in a group?

It’s social

Neurologist Sophie Scott has spent her career studying laughter. Her observations have uncovered some interesting findings. One which likely wouldn’t surprise anyone is that laughter is the most easily recognizable vocal expression of emotion on our planet.

Scott has determined, though, that we tend to have incorrect assumptions about the origins of laughter. She believes most laughter has little or nothing to do with humor. We think we are laughing at other people’s jokes. Scott says that recordings of conversations show the person who laughs the most at any time is the one who is talking.

She’s concluded that laughter is what she calls the expression of “social emotion.” It brings us together and helps us bond. It may have nothing to do with something being funny. Take an embarrassing situation. That unstoppable laughter may simply be our way of communicating with those around us that we agree about the discomfort of the moment.


Scott believes there’s also another contributor to why we give each other a case of the giggles as a group. During her research, she gave participants fMRI scans while they responded to laughter. Laughter acts just like a physical action. It activates what’s known as the brain’s mirror regions. These areas mimic each other’s actions.

If you see someone throwing a ball, the mirror area of your brain associated with throwing a ball can also be activated. It’s the neural mimicry, Scott says, that’s responsible for contagious nervous giggles. She’s concluded that we are 30 times more likely to laugh when we are with others who are laughing than if we are by ourselves.

Nervous laughter proves that we don’t have this response because only funny or entertaining things elicit a case of the giggles. We’re just as likely to chuckle at something tragic as something hysterically funny. What we’re discovering is that laughter is more of a social form of communication than we ever considered it to be.

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