The Hidden Meaning of Laughter
January 28, 2019 11:09 AM   Subscribe

When Sophie Scott was about 6, she came across her parents doing something strange. They were rolling on the floor, helpless with laughter because of a comedy song about what people were not supposed to do in toilets on trains. The lyrics of Humoresque (Passengers Will Please Refrain) include "customers will please refrain from passing water while the train is in the station. Darling, I love you. We encourage constipation while the train is in the station." Today Professor Sophie Scott is a neuroscientist who also does stand-up on occasion.

The 1956 toilet-focused ditty sung by Oscar Brand sparked Scott's eventual interest in the neural basis of vocal communication. In a recent Hidden Brain podcast, Scott discusses, among other things, how laughter, chuckles, and giggles often aren't a response to humor but a response to people. "Most of the laughter we produce is purely social," says Scott. "Laughter is a very good index of how we feel about the people that we're with."

As Scott wrote in an article for the BBC recently, "Laughter is primarily a form of bonding; we are 30 times more likely to laugh if we are with others than if we are alone. It is an ancient, universal reaction that is not even limited to humans; it has been documented in many animal species, including apes and even rats."

In 2017 Professor Scott was chosen to deliver the annual Christmas Lectures for The Royal Institution charity. Lecture One explores how laughter provides a link to our animal past, how our voice box has changed the shape of our faces, and why we sound the way we do. Lecture Two explores the hidden code of communication, the more secret and sometimes more sinister side of human interaction. Lecture Three examines how and when humans first evolved language.

Her 2015 TED talk may surprise you (rats are ticklish; did you know?). Scott is on Twitter as @sophiescott.
posted by Bella Donna (29 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sorry if this contravenes everything that Metafilter stands for, but Sophie is my sister and the fact that she's made the Blue makes me both proud of her and even more pleased by my many years of reading this site. If this is wrong please delete this comment and salt the earth it stood on.
posted by YoungStencil at 11:32 AM on January 28 [125 favorites]


More toilet-based train humour here.
posted by Paul Slade at 11:33 AM on January 28 [2 favorites]


It's filling me with delight for one, YoungStencil.
posted by sciatrix at 11:33 AM on January 28 [4 favorites]




When Sophie Scott was about 6, she came across her parents doing something strange. They were rolling on the floor, helpless with laughter . . .

Primal Scene of the Third Kind.
posted by jamjam at 11:47 AM on January 28 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of really deep stuff in her research, and it is a topic of completely universal relevance. The Hidden Brain piece around her work was great and I'm glad this is a FPP.
posted by Glomar response at 11:51 AM on January 28 [4 favorites]


Apes, humans, and rats laugh, but what about dogs? Do dogs sneeze-laugh only around people and other dogs?
posted by RuvaBlue at 12:30 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


YoungStencil, is that true? OMG I am so pleased. I heard Hidden Brain and because of Wordshore's poop award during the January contest immediately fixated on the song. But then of course I listened to the entire thing and read some more stuff and thought, golly, this Professor Scott doesn't seem to be known on the blue and she ought to be, no kidding.

Also, a correction. I assembled the post in a bit of haste. The beginning of the inside part should have been something like this instead:

The laughter that resulted from her parents listening to a 1956 toilet-focused ditty sung by Oscar Brand sparked Scott's eventual interest in the neural basis of vocal communication.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:37 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


Bella Donna - it's all true. I have two sisters, both are fabulous, but only one is a stand-up neuroscientist. Thanks for the post.
posted by YoungStencil at 12:48 PM on January 28 [8 favorites]


YoungStencil, it was my pleasure (and not only mine, based on the comments by MeFites who are completely unrelated to your clan).
posted by Bella Donna at 12:52 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


Boyfriend sang that Humoresque song to me shortly after we met. <3 <3 <3
posted by JanetLand at 12:55 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


Laughter is primarily a form of bonding; we are 30 times more likely to laugh if we are with others than if we are alone.

I wonder how this is affected when reading or watching a film in which the characters also react with laughter to something? Do they count as "other people" and therefore increase our enjoyment of a joke? I'm reminded of a passage from Master and Commander, which I just read for the umpteenth time, and which I laughed so hard at that I woke up my poor, long-suffering husband:

Give your father my compliments and tell him my bankers are Hoares.' For Jack, like most other captains, managed the youngsters' parental allowance for them. 'Hoares,' he repeated absently once or twice, 'my bankers are Hoares,' and a strangled ugly crowing noise made him turn. Young Ricketts was clinging to the fall of the main burton-tackle in an attempt to control himself, but without much success.

The pun itself is mildly funny, and the "absently repeating" evokes an even funnier image, but what absolutely tickled me to death is the image of Ricketts trying to stifle his laughter, and I don't think the scene would have been a tenth as funny without it.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:02 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]


At any rate, one of the most sublime moment of my life was watching The General on the big screen with about 100 small children who shrieked with laughter at all the best parts. Despite being pretty damn funny the previous 20 times I had seen it, it became, in that moment, orders of magnitude more funny.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 1:02 PM on January 28 [7 favorites]


I was travelling by train in $COUNTRY several years ago and the "toilets" were simply holes in the floor of the train that emptied directly onto the tracks. This used to be SOP and is basically still SOP on smallish boats.

(Just in case anyone was wondering at the proscription.)
posted by sjswitzer at 1:04 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


The lyrics of Humoresque (Passengers Will Please Refrain) include "customers will please refrain from passing water while the train is in the station.

Which explains a line in one of my favorite songs, City of New Orleans. A previous comment referencing non-retention toilets.
posted by TedW at 1:44 PM on January 28 [3 favorites]


Metafilter: please delete this comment and salt the earth it stood on.
posted by riverlife at 1:45 PM on January 28 [5 favorites]


The lyrics of Humoresque (Passengers Will Please Refrain) include "customers will please refrain from passing water while the train is in the station.

In a tangental kind of way, you've just reminded me of my favourite Spike Milligan poem:

There was a young man of Darjeeling,
Who got on the night bus to Ealing,
It said on the door,
"Please don't spit on the floor",
So he stood up and spat on the ceiling!
posted by Paul Slade at 1:57 PM on January 28 [5 favorites]


'Hoares,' he repeated absently once or twice, 'my bankers are Hoares,'

The pun itself is mildly funny


But any joke automatically becomes funnier when repeated 3 or 4 times. Every comic worth their salt knows this.

Also, if a jazz musician plays a wrong note during a solo, repeating the same note during the solo magically makes the note "hip".
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:20 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


On the separate "humor is social" topic...I've heard more than once before that people laugh more at movie/TV show humor when they're watching with someone else than they do when watching by themselves. But I laugh just as loudly (even louder sometimes) when I'm by myself - am I the only one??
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:25 PM on January 28 [4 favorites]


Yup. You and you alone, Greg_Ace. Now go to your corner and ponder exactly what you've done.
posted by Bella Donna at 2:32 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


Will do. Don't mind the giggling.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:43 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


It depends! Sometimes I've laughed alone so hard at something I couldn't wait till someone else comes around so I could show em too, only for either them or myself to not find it nearly as funny later. Other times I'm laughing internally like crazy at something I'm watching but don't make a peep despite it being so hilarious.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:15 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


Humoresque No. 7 has a long history of accompanying humorous verse. Here's The Ear Song from Bagpuss.
posted by pipeski at 4:26 PM on January 28 [1 favorite]


My husband and I have been married for twenty some odd years, and when someone asked my husband what our secret was, he said he made it a goal to make me laugh every day. And I resolved to admit that I found his puns funny, even in public. Don’t get me to lying, there’s been rough patches, and some really terrible dad jokes, but y’all, I’ll take a man who makes me laugh over a man who brings me diamonds, every time.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 5:33 PM on January 28 [2 favorites]


I listen to a 24/7 classical radio station. Occasionally Humoresque is played, and I wonder if the host is rofl or blissfully unaware.
posted by Cranberry at 12:21 AM on January 29


When it comes to laughter being social, I believe it. But I am not always good at it. A couple of my friends, both men, are often disappointed when I don't laugh at their jokes. Their particular jokes tend to be either based on sarcasm or word play. Which is fine but I'm not a fan of puns (sorry, MeFites). Then it gets weird because they get almost mad at me for not laughing. Half the time I don't even understand that what one of my friends has said is even meant as a joke until he gets butthurt over my reaction. Sigh. This nonverbal communication thing can be challenging. Greg_Ace, I also laugh out loud when I am alone, but more often when I am reading a book than watching TV or listening to a podcast.
posted by Bella Donna at 1:28 AM on January 29


My parents used to have a version of the stopped train toilet proscription song that included the explanatory line "fettlers working underneath will get it in the eyes and teeth" which I always rather liked.
posted by flabdablet at 6:08 AM on January 29 [3 favorites]


similarly “… I'm the man who cleans the wheels / And I know just how if feels / to have a ton of «raspberry noise» land on your head
posted by scruss at 2:17 PM on January 29 [2 favorites]


Before the thread closes, I wanted to say how much I loved this post and how delighted I was by the connection to YoungStencil.

I highly recommend The Hidden Brain episode; it's fantastic and a nice balance of serious, interesting, and thought-provoking. Very well produced. The transcript (linked above) is good; listen to it if you can, as it highlights a number of different contexts as demonstrated in clips. Content warning: it does contain some clips of Individual 1 -- namely, the Access Hollywood recording -- as well as Dr Blasey Ford's testimony at the Senate, as examples of laughter in unsettling/negative contexts.

The Royal Institute series is wonderful - each of the three "lectures" is about an hour each. I put "lectures" in quotes because I was expecting a traditional talk, but they're really not. I'm unfamiliar with the annual Royal Institution series as a whole, but Dr Scott's series is more like an interactive presentation with many different examples and guests.

Very tight production (as a former stage tech in school, I was impressed not only by the science discussion, but also the staging). If you choose just one, the first episode is a great intro to sound and communication, starting with basics that are demonstrated in an engaging manner. The guests include singers (one of the vocalists sings while a camera shows her laryx as she's singing!), animals (e.g. tickling a rat is shown here as well) and bugs (I never would have guessed that a musical mosquito duet would be a highlight of the hour), and the many demonstrations also include the classic wine glass breaking at just-so frequency of sound waves.

The audience is young (maybe older elementary - junior high?), fairly diverse, and a few are asked to be volunteers (I loved that Dr Scott picked girls and boys), and can I say that it is **so cool** to see the kids who have a gleam in their eyes as they're listening/watching. I was as thoroughly engaged as they were, and wished I could have had a teacher like Dr Scott or that I could have seen this when I was younger. As a kid I enjoyed watching "Mr Wizard" and this sort of reminded me of a much bigger production, with of course a woman being the science authority. Regardless, I'm glad to be able to learn about Dr Scott's work now and I appreciate that the episodes are all free. They should also really be on PBS, Netflix etc.

Anyway I definitely recommend checking out the Royal Institute series. I know what I'll be recommending for future AskMes that want fun science videos (for kids and adults). Also looking forward to the Ted talk when I next have a chance.

Thanks for posting, Bella Donna! And YoungStencil, at the risk of sounding like a fan of your sister...welp, I think I am a fan now. Hooray for awesome women in science!
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 3:05 AM on February 28 [2 favorites]


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