Flatus Interruptus

Breaking the ice by breaking wind

Posted Nov 20, 2013


I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.

~ Kurt Vonnegut (found here)

Es gibt Gerüchte, daß Hülsenfrüchte, in Mengen genommen, nicht gut bekommen [There are rumors that legumes, if taken in quantity, will not agree with you]

~ Heinz Erhardt (it's a clever rhyme in German)

Farts are funny. Children know this. Fathers know this because their children remind them. There is no way to get more joy out of children with less work. Tickling comes close, but it requires effort. Farting provides release to the self and entertainment to the children. The cost-benefit ratio is excellent. The question is: Why are farts funny? How is it that farts can make us laugh until it hurts? How do farts provoke the kind of laugh that refuses to die down with habituation? Only the eventual pain in the diaphragm shuts the laughter down. A side question is why the gelastic power of farts does not work as well with grown women.

Over the years, I have seen only a few scientific articles on humor and laughter. Today, my sense is that although psychologists since before Sigmund (“The Wit”) Freud have been interested in the topic, the fart has not given up its mystery. What little we know about humor has to do with why we laugh at jokes. A good joke raises expectations, only to frustrate them with a pointe. It does not hurt if someone gets dissed along the way. Hence we laugh.

Now, this theory is too cerebral to explain the fart laugh. No narrative script is being evoked only to be turned on its head. There is sound, but there are no words. And no one gets dissed. The kids (and the rest of us) laugh with the farter, not at him (or her). By farting, the farter cannot denigrate an outgroup. One might say, with Monty Python, “I fart in your general direction,” but that’s a different matter.

Something else is going on, something limbic. Something from the mammalian brain is running the show, although it is strange that we humans and a few chimps are the only mammals that seem to use this part of the brain. And why don’t we laugh at burps? Burps are just gross, and it is their very grossness that deepens the mystery of the funny fart.

I care about the fart laugh because it is mysterious. The fart laugh is trying to tell us something about our nature, something that we don't quite understand yet (see Spiegel, 2013, for a recent effort, or Dawson's books on the cultural and the natural histories of farts (I ordered the latter). Few people reviewed his work but those who did liked it. Psychologists are conspicuous in their absence. Perhaps they think that fart-induced laughing is silly and unworthy of academic attention. But what about the laughter we see and hear when people watch videos of Asch’s conformity studies or Milgram’s obedience studies? The participants in these studies are in psychic pain because the experiments put them in a crisis of conscience. Many viewers laugh at this as if they were amused. When asked, they express compassion with the research participants and some are embarrassed about their laughter, but they laugh nonetheless. Their limbic systems reject their cortices’ attempts to gain control. I suspect, but cannot prove, that the fart laugh has something in common with the nervous laugh at the distress at others. But I doubt that these two kinds of laugh are identical. I suspect, for example, that the same children who delight in farts do not laugh at others’ distress.

My impressions are off-the-cuffish and I have no intention to design a critical experiment. I did, however, allow myself to tell one of my classes about a website I found where about 50 different farts are presented in their full auditory glory. Each fart has its own name, and many of these names are funnily creative in their own right (The Long and Winded Road, Laurel and Farty, Old Sparky). I boldly predicted that, if I played a small sample, the men in the class would laugh uncontrollably, whereas the response from the women would be mixed. This hypothesis was not rejected (p > .05). One student was so taken with the demonstration that he sent me a link to a fartsite where a mock preacher reads mock scripture to the sound of flatulence. I told him that this treatment of the topic was difficult to interpret because it conflated (get it?) scatology with theology. Nonetheless, I conceded that the clip was a hoot.

I suspect that readers’ responses to this post will also be mixed, ranging from laughter (among those who found the fartsite) to incomprehension to disgust. To all three groups I say, laughter aside, there is a psychological story here that is waiting to be told. If our limbic responses reveal the depths of our souls, then laughing at strange things is a signal from the deep. What does it tell us about ourselves? And if this question is too profound or too Kierkegaardian, we can always take a break and ventilate.

We are now awaiting neuroscientific work showing your brain while farting or while hearing farts. I predict heightened activity in the reward centers of the limbic system.

Spiegel, J. S. (2013). Why flatulence is funny. Think, 12, 15 - 24.

As per dénouement, I'll have you know that according to the Urban Dictionary, the expression tout suite refers to a quick, silent fart. This is not what the French intended. The phrase's street meaning is - as it were - fartuituous. For more winded hilarity, see Jim Dawson's (2010) Did somebody step on a duck: A natural history of the fart.

Let us conclude poetically:

Salomo, der Weise spricht. Leise Fürze stinken nicht. Aber die, die schleichen, die stinken zum Steinerweichen.

[Salomon, the Wise, speak. Loud farts do not reek. But those that sneak, make the toughest rocks weak.]