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No Joke: Laughter Is Universal

Basic Emotions Shared and Understood by All Humans, Study Finds

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 25, 2010 -- Laugh and the world laughs with you, literally. A new study suggests laughter is part of a universal language of basic emotions that all humans share.

Researchers found that people from the UK and a remote African tribe were able to recognize basic emotions such as amusement, anger, fear, and sadness through simple sounds like laughter even though they came from very different cultures and languages.

"People from both groups seemed to find the basic emotions -- anger, fear, disgust, amusement, sadness, and surprise -- the most easily recognizable," researcher Sophie Scott, a professor at University College London, says in a news release. "This suggests that these emotions - and their vocalizations -- are similar across all human cultures."

Basic Emotions Universal

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers had participants from the UK and the Himba tribe (who live a remote area in northern Namibia and lead completely traditional lives with no electricity, running water, or formal education) listen to a short story based on a particular emotion. For example, how a person is sad because a relative died.

At the end of each story, the participants heard two sounds, such as crying or laughter, and were asked to match the sound to the emotion portrayed by the story.

The British group heard sounds made by the Himba people and vice versa.

The results showed the sound of laughter was particularly well recognized by both cultures. Listeners from both groups agreed that laughter signified amusement, as demonstrated by the feeling of being tickled.

"Tickling makes everyone laugh -- and not just humans," researcher Disa Sauter, of the department of psychology at University College London, says in the release. "We see this happen in other primates, such as chimpanzees, as well as other mammals. This suggests that laughter has deep evolutionary roots, possibly originating as part of playful communication between young infants and mothers."

Other emotional sounds that were recognized cross-culturally included anger disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and amusement.

But other sounds were not as recognizable, such as a sigh signifying relief.

SOURCES: Sauter, D. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Jan. 25-29, 2010, online early edition.

News release, Wellcome Trust.

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