For Qing Ceci Cai, a Chinese Ph.D. student at University College London, social laughter has a very personal connection. “As a Chinese student immersing in this very different British culture, I normally fail to understand British humor,” she explains. “So most of the time when I hang out with my friends, I capture the exact timing to join others in laughter to show I understand what’s going on.”
Based on these experiences using laughter as a social signal, Cai began wondering how others, including autistic people, produce and perceive laughter as a social signal. So, she led a study with Sophie Scott and Sarah White to look at differences in social processing of laughter between neurotypical and autistic people. They created an implicit processing task, novelly using vocal stimuli, to investigate whether the addition of laughter would affect the perceived funniness of jokes. They presented spoken jokes to participants, editing onto them with posed or spontaneous laughter.
Publishing in Current Biology, the research team found that for both neurotypical and autistic participants, laughter enhanced how funny they found jokes and that the effect was even greater for spontaneous laughter.
Cai spoke with CNS about the study, its motivations, and future directions.
CNS: What have we known previously about how laughter affects perception of humor?
Cai: We commonly view laughter as a positive emotional expression in response to humor and amusement, but actually, laughter is more often used as a communicative tool in social interactions, like showing agreement and affiliation to others. I don’t think previous studies have separated or isolated these two concepts, so in our study, we used posed, controlled laughter to see whether it works like spontaneous, genuine laughter, also have an effect to enhance people perceived the funniness of puns jokes.
CNS: I saw that you used “bad jokes” for the study. Why?
Cai: There were two main reasons to use “bad jokes.” Because we are doing autism research, we didn’t want to use jokes autistic people have difficulty understanding, for example, the kind of jokes that require one to attribute others’ mental states to understand the humor. By reviewing previous literature, we found that neurotypical and autistic people are likely to understand verbal puns, so we decided to use puns and wordplay jokes. The other reason is that by using these bad jokes, we can avoid the ceiling effects when determining any influence of laughter.
CNS: What were your most excited or surprised to find?
Cai: Autistic adults rated both types of jokes as funnier than neurotypical adults. However, we lack baseline ratings from autistic adults to verify whether they rate the same in the perceived funniness of pun jokes as neurotypical adults.
CNS: What do you most want people to understand about this work?
Cai: As human beings, we cannot ignore the existence of laughter. ‘If there’s a laugh there, you can’t ignore it,” Professor Sophie Scott says, because it is being implicitly processed by people.
CNS: What’s next for this line of work?
Cai: We just finished this year’s testing, so the next step will be data analysis. I got the baseline ratings of jokes from autistic adults. I’m very excited to see whether autistic adults and neurotypical adults are the same how they perceive funniness of puns jokes. I’ve also got data to look at laughter production in autistic and neurotypical adults.
Also, I’d like to explore the underlying neurocognitive mechanism of laughter processing by using neuroimage approaches, such as fMRI and fNIRS.
CNS: Is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you’d like to add?
Cai: I got many valuable and encouraging feedback and comments from autistic people and people who have experience in interacting with autistic people, such as those who have a family member/family members with autism. Some of the autistic individuals told me their autistic siblings have a unique and different laughter pattern. And some parents with autistic kids don’t want to suffocate their kids’ unique expressiveness in order to maintain a sense of decorum. It’s gratifying to feel that what I am doing can hopefully bring mutual understanding between neurotypical and autistic people!
-Lisa M.P. Munoz