Have you ever tried to laugh at something that wasn’t funny because social conventions called for laughter? You probably found it a little awkward and your laugh probably didn’t sound the most generous or real. Humans are really good at laughter, but we are not very good at consciously understanding and being aware of our laughter. On the flip side of forced laughter, have you ever laughed uncontrollably at an inappropriate time? Somewhere, our brains know when it is appropriate or not to laugh, and sometimes we can control that a bit, but oftentimes, our laughter is instinctive or stems from someplace other than our conscious thought.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “while we may not understand or control our laughter, out brains are experts at it. They know when to laugh, at which stimuli, and they get it right most of the time, with inappropriate laughter bursting forth only on occasion. Our brains also instinctively know how to interpret the laughter of others, whether by laughing in return or otherwise reacting appropriately. Its only to us – our conscious, introspective minds – that laughter remains a mystery.”
Recently I have been fascinated with how little we understand about our own brains. We move through the world believing that we understand anything about ourselves and the world we move through, but it is clear that there is a lot of machinery in the brain that almost none of us actually understand or recognize. Laughter is a fascinating point because it demonstrates something that is so natural to us, something we would assume we control and understand with ease, but that involves complex processes that are far beyond what any of us realize.
I cannot help but believe that we should not trust our brains and the first thoughts that come to mind. We should not expect our understanding of what is happening to be the most accurate. We should always assume there is more taking place than what we can grasp. Laughter is an example of a situation that conveys a lot of messages that are below the level of our conscious minds. We pick up a lot of information in the laughter of others, but we would probably have trouble explaining exactly what information we took away from the laugh of another person. In the same way, there is a lot about the world we know and don’t know, and we should recognize how much of it lays beyond our conscious awareness.