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Interactive video lesson plan for: Do Animals Laugh?

Activity overview:

It’s no secret that some animal species are highly intelligent – but do they also “get” jokes? Can they laugh? Are laughter and intelligence even related?

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4 Types of Laughter on What The Stuff?!:

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Have you ever tried to tell a joke to an animal? I’ve done it before. Whatever. This is BrainStuff.

So here’s the question: Can animals laugh?

There are many different types of laughter – we’ve got a great What The Stuff video on it, and, generally speaking, these types fall into two broad categories: complex social laughter, where you have to know the context, or have a sense of humor, to “get” it, and laughter in response to stimulation like tickling.

Some animals, such as primates, seem to have a sense of humor, meaning they can respond to situations with a pant that sounds eerily similar to laughter. You can read numerous stories about Koko the gorilla allegedly making jokes in sign language and so on.

Additionally, when adult animals like dolphins or ravens play pranks, they’re indicating an understanding of humor.

But laughter itself seems more common than humans had originally thought. Rats have been laughing their furry little keisters off since the dawn of recorded history, but we only figured this out a few years back. It turns out rats like being tickled, and when they’re tickled, they chirp at a range too high for human ears to pick up – around 50 kilohertz.

We know this thanks to the work of Jaak Panksepp and Jeffrey Burgdorf, beginning in the late 90s at Bowling Green State University.

And if we’re talking about that second category of laughter – a positive vocalization associated with touch – then the comedy floodgates may have just swung wide open.

Dr. Marina Davila Ross, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth, has been studying the evolution of laughter for years. Dr. Davila Ross has been gathering as much data as possible about the reactions various animals have to being tickled.

The list of animals that make a vocal reaction when tickled include meerkats, camels, dolphins, dogs, owls, penguins and more. Based on my own experiments, cats don’t seem to dig it.

So what’s the explanation? According to Michael Owren, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience from Georgia State University, the case may be simple (at least when applied to mammals) – just a pleasant feeling evoked by touching.

Laughter, it seems, may well be millions of years old, and existed before human beings. If you think about it, we’re sort of late to the joke. And to be fair, most scientists aren’t calling this straight-out ‘laughter’. Instead, they’re suggesting that these are positive vocalizations, or as Dr. Davila-Ross writes “expressions of joy”.

And when we ask whether laughter is a sign of intelligence, Dr. Panksepp notes that intelligence isn’t a requirement for laughter. Instead, Panksepp suggests, maybe we should look at it from another direction – perhaps “play in any species can increase social intelligence”.

As research continues we’re learning more and more about animals, laughter and humor. If you’d like to get more info about laughter in primates – or just read one heck of a fascinating book, I highly recommend The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner.

Hey - wait. I just thought about this. All those times we hear a comic make a joke and then there’s silence except for crickets… what if those crickets are cracking up? Mind. Blown.


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