We laugh and cry for a multitude of reasons, whether it takes a minimal amount of emotion or a lot of thought. The range is vast for humor. It goes at one end of the spectrum from the most benign action of making a silly face — to the other extreme where jokes include linguistic puns and/or brain-teasers, which might involve satire or what some call the ‘thinking man’s wit.’ So, it’s a well-established fact that humans have a sense of humor. As far as crying - that's the flip-side of our emotional range, where the former signifies happiness and the latter sadness.
But, do other species have the same abilities to laugh and cry?
How do you define humor?
Some feel it comes down how you define humor. A Life Science report noted that “for millennia, philosophers and psychologists have struggled to come up with an exact definition for what constitutes humor.”
They related numerous theories over the years, one of the most popular being the "incongruity theory.” At its basic level, this theory equates humor arising from an inconsistency between what one expects to happen and what actually happens — and this includes comedic tools, such as puns, irony and twists of fate.
So if we were to conclude that all humor entails these elements, we’d have to exclude animals — since, they lack the cognitive brain power that would allow them to discern such inconsistencies.
But that can't be the end of the story, do you think?
Well, if you were to include tickling as a laughter causation, you'd have to admit that other species do giggle audibly when tickled. In fact, our closest cousins on the evolutionary scale are photographed laughing in the wild all the time. Over the years scientists have affirmed that orangutans and chimpanzees respond to tickling, with what has technically been labeled as, “tickle-induced vocalizations.”
However something a bit more unexpected is when you tickle a rat. Jaak Panskepp, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Washington State University has found that tickled rats make happy noises, that she equates to laughter.
When scientists tickled these rodents, they made the same happy sounds they used during play, according to a study published in 2000. The noises are above the range of human hearing but have been designated as ‘laughter.’ In fact, some of the lab rats liked being tickled so much, they followed the human hand that tickled them around their maze.
More evolved sense of humor in primates
As noted above, chimps do seem to have a rudimentary sense of humor. However, for an even more evolved sense of humor in primates, you need only to look to gorillas. For instance, Koko, the famous western lowland gorilla could probably be defined as the female “Einstein” of her species.
This clever ape understands more than 1,000 American Sign Language signs and 2000 spoken words. And she is known to not only use language to humorous effect by playing with different meanings of the same word, but she also engages in slapstick and pranks. She’s reportedly signed the word “chase” after tying her trainer’s shoelaces together and then laughing herself silly, when said trainer tripped around the room.
The flip-side of humor
As humans are well-aware, the flip-side of humor is sadness. And Koko has reportedly experienced both publicly. In fact, she shared a friendship with one of the world’s greatest humorists. Going back 14 years, Robin Williams met the gorilla at the Gorilla Foundation in 2001 and a bond of friendship was formed that brought a lot of laughs to both of them.
When Williams passed away in 2014, Dr. Penny Patterson, the foundation’s president and the gorilla’s foster mother told Koko of his death. In my blog post, “Koko The Gorilla’s Bond With Robin Williams,” I reported that Koko’s response to the news “was quiet and thoughtful.” So much so, Koko signed the words “woman crying.”
As more studies pertaining to happiness and sadness are undertaken, we'll eventually learn more about the nuances of laughter and crying in other species. It’s eye-opening to understand that these emotions run deep — and just because we can’t always see them on the surface — it’s not only humans who can laugh until we cry. Other species sense both ends of the spectrum as well.
Primary Source: Laughing Animals