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Meerloo, J.A. (1966). The Biology of Laughter. Psychoanal. Rev., 53B(2):25-44.

(1966). Psychoanalytic Review, 53B(2):25-44

The Biology of Laughter

Joost A. M. Meerloo, M.D.

I. Introduction

Laughter may be characterized as a contagious, explosive release of tension affecting everyone exposed to it. When I smile at a stranger, even if he does not speak my language he usually responds with a smile. Though laughter in man has manifold meanings, and is changed and conditioned on the various social levels—a smile can be a mere social cliché—laughter has become a gesture which enables man to share his emotions. These simple facts must be rooted in man's primary gestural mood-conveyance, since this form of expression existed before verbal and semantic communication established a more intellectual human contact. However, from the outset we must also be cognizant of the great opposites of human feeling laughter can express. Rather than a pleasant sensation, it may connote disdain, self pity or irony; and even the astute observer will not always discern the precise quality of feeling implied.

Laughter, chuckling and other risible phenomena are very contagious indeed and according to the rules of mental infection16 must belong to the archaic biological means of human adaptation and communication. Consonant with one of these rules, the more a human expression makes use of an archaic biological means of expression the more contagious is that expression.

Yet a smile as a form of communication coincides with the precept of ambivalence which is inherent in all human communication: A smile can be both a direct emotional expression or serve as a camouflage.

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