On Inappropriate Laughter, and What It Says About Our Brains

Don't worry, you're not a terrible person.
January 18, 2018, 4:12am

If you too suffer from the ever-present threat of inappropriate laughter, you’ll know that it happens when your one job, your one job in that moment as a decent person, is not to laugh. Like during one minute's silence for dead dolphins at a Greenpeace concert (guilty), or during serious fights with an earnest boyfriend (guilty). Or when someone says their beloved gran who raised them on her pension has passed (never as long as I live, grandmas are sacred).


Unlike forced laughter — that strained bark designed to make someone else feel good — nervous laughter makes everyone feel bad. Even if you know you don’t mean it, your eyewitnesses conclude you have a problem. Which really, you do. So does this affliction mean you're a cold-hearted cynic with zero empathy reserves? And if not, what is going on in your brain? “Inappropriate laughter is a really interesting one,” says Steve Ellen, director of Melbourne’s Psychosocial Oncology Program. “We all do it, I’ve done it very many times. It can really be quite difficult. You can be talking about something very tense, and your body responds by laughing.”

Ellen thinks nervous laughter is a psychological response to anxiety and tension, that “our own body makes us start laughing to relieve the tension, even if we don’t really want to [and] we’d prefer to be serious.”

Jordan Raine, a PhD Researcher into “Human Non-verbal Vocalisations” at the University of Sussex, agrees that it could be the brain’s way of diffusing tension, or a defensive coping mechanism when you’re faced with something traumatic or distressing.

“[This] can sometimes occur as fits of nervous laughter in immediate reaction to some event, perhaps serving to protect ourselves against the true nature of what we’re witnessing." Raine also points to something called the “pseudobulbar affect,” which may hold a clue. This involves episodes of uncontrollable and unpredictable laughter in some people with brain disorders, like multiple sclerosis and dementia. He cites a 2005 study that details a patient with a brain lesion who developed pathological laughter when swallowing liquids, but not solids.


Which isn’t to say inappropriate laughter indicates a brain disorder, just that the mechanics behind this more extreme form could shed some light on the everyday version. One theory used to explain the pseudobulbar affect is a glitch in the pathways linking up specific regions of the brain. Those regions are the cortical structures — which help you assess the information around the “funny” event (and therefore what type of response is appropriate) — and the “the evolutionarily ancient cerebellum,” which helps regulate emotional responses, including laughter.

Applying this theory to healthy people, laughing at inappropriate moments could be the result of a tug-of-war between these two regions. “We might find an event so hilarious that our cortical structures are unable to control the sensory overload in our other brain structures, resulting in uncontrollable fits of laughter.”

As for finding humour in dark places, Alex Borgella, a social psychologist at Tufts University who studies humour’s many complexities, says that in a lot of ways inappropriateness is part of what makes many things funny in the first place. It’s all about your “appraisal” (perception) of “stimulus” (things).

“So, if you perceive a situation that seems like it’s harmlessly violating some social or moral norm, for example someone loudly farting in the middle of a funeral, you’re more likely to laugh than if you perceive a harmful violation of that norm,” Borgella says. “For example, someone being shot at a funeral—or something harmless that doesn’t violate any norms, like farting in a bathroom.”

That would explain why, when someone shows you something they find hilarious and are deeply invested in you also finding it hilarious, you probably won’t. The very expectation you’ll find something funny appears to take the edge off its potential to make you laugh. Nervous laughter exists in the exact opposite space, up to a point (see: grandmas). But ultimately, says Raine, we still don’t really know why humans laugh at all. So it’s very hard to say what nervous laughter is about. “It’s one of those funny things in life where, although it happens every day, we don’t understand it very well,” he says.

“In the field of psychology we understand the unusual things better than we understand the common things.” So there you go. Nervous laughter happens, you’re not alone, but it is a curse. On the plus side, this is most likely happening because your brain needs to diffuse the anxiety triggered by upsetting things, and therefore you are probably more sensitive, not less, than people who have their shit under control. Use this line, it is likely your best defence. Follow Rebecca on Twitter