On Laughter and Tears

You cry at happy weddings and sad movies…is that what makes you human?

Posted Feb 20, 2013

It’s remarkable how little we truly understand about fundamental human emotions at this late point in history. Robert Provine reduced our ignorance about laughter by his painstaking observational research described in “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation” in 2001. We know a lot of facts about laughter, but how deeply do we understand this most delightful emotional expression?

We know laughter binds us one to another from infancy up through old age. We know it spreads easily through a group. We know that that though laughter can be used as a weapon, it’s more likely to grease social wheels, to reassure one another and to unite us. We know it turns up our immune system along with our endorphins. We know that laughter makes us happy, but we don’t have to be happy to laugh.

We have to look to philosophy to take us deeper into the meaning and role of laughter. Many of us would be surprised to know that Kierkegaard, “the melancholy Dane,” posited a 4 stage model of human development: the first was aesthetics – the pursuit of pleasure and beauty; the second was morality – a concern with ethics and right & wrong; the third was laughter – the stage of recognizing human folly and self-delusion through a lens of understanding and compassion; and the last was sacred or religious – life with the transcendent.

Of laughter, Kierkegaard wrote, “When I was young I forgot in the Trophonian cave (a famous Greek oracle from which people emerged terrified and pale) how to laugh, but when I grew older and opened my eyes and contemplated the real world, I had to laugh and have not ceased laughing ever since. “

Laughter as a developmental life stage is the gentle laughter of a mature perspective. It is laughter with a light touch, and a warm, but not clutching, embrace of what is.

Animals laugh when they’re tickled, but can hardly be said to have a sense of humor. Perhaps, then, it is laughter that makes us human.

Michael Trimble, author and professor of neurology, would disagree with that last statement. In his book “Why Humans Like To Cry”, he explores the phenomenon of emotional crying in human beings. Apparently, while other species may cry in pain, humans are unique in crying in response to emotional stimuli. Humans cry at loss, they grieve with tears, and they may also be moved to tears by aesthetics. Music can bring us to tears, and so can beauty and joy, religious ritual and theater.

What is odd, when one stops to consider, is that we enjoy the experience of crying at a movie or play. Trimble explores this peculiar human activity historically and neuroanatomically, and proposes cognitive and social value to the evolution of emotional crying in humans. It is interesting to note that Trimble’s touchstone for this work is another philosopher, Nietzsche; specifically his book, “The Birth of Tragedy; or Hellenism and Pessimism.”

So, which makes us human, tears or laughter, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard? If it were up to me, I’d choose laughter.

But life insists on both.

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