February 11, 2021
There are few sweeter sounds in this world than a baby’s sweet chortles. Indeed, psychologists believe that a baby’s smiles and laughs—which typically begin at the age of three months and precede his or her first words by about six months—can promote bonding between parents and their new bundle of joy.
Indeed, laughter may be one of the earliest clues as to how we humans experience the world. This is what first interested Dr. Casper Addyman, a lecturer in developmental psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London; and director of the Goldsmiths InfantLab. He wanted to study how babies learn, but, unlike a scientist working with adult subjects, “You can’t ask babies questions or get them to press buttons,” he says.
Eventually, what he learned became the topic of a talk at TEDx Bratislava on “Life Lessons from Laughing Babies.” TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment, and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
But, as a first step into this field, Addyman—who is not a father, himself—collected parents’ observations of their babies’ laughter (in his research, he classifies babies as children up to 30 months).
From September 2012 through November 2013, about 1,500 mothers and fathers from 62 countries across the globe—including the Philippines, Zambia, Uruguay, and Australia — responded to Addyman’s questions; and some sent in short videos. When did their babies first laugh? What situations do they find the funniest? What toys and games made them laugh the most?
Based on this research, Addyman reached the following conclusions, which also became the foundation of his TEDx talk:
There is one game that babies all around the world find a laugh riot. Contenders for most hilarious game included such heavyweights as making silly noises or playing with puppets. The hands-down winner, however—even across different countries—was … peekaboo. Addyman was intrigued. He didn’t think its power was just its ability to surprise. Because while young babies may think the other person actually disappears when they hide behind their hands and get shocked into giggles when the hider reappears, older babies, such as two-year-olds, aren’t fooled — and yet they still find it absolutely hilarious.
A key ingredient that fuels early laughter: Sharing. For the experiment, Addyman observed how children between the ages of 2-and-one-half years old and 4 years old reacted to a funny cartoon when they watched it alone, with one other child, and in a group. Children laughed eight times as much when they were with another child than when they watched the cartoon on their own — even though they reported that the cartoon was just as funny in both situations.
And interestingly enough, the children didn’t laugh any more in a big group than they laughed with just one other person. This suggested to him that laughter is more than a contagious reaction; instead, it’s “a signal to someone else that’s there,” he says. “The main reason they’re laughing is to communicate that they find this funny.” For example, when preschoolers watched the cartoon alone, they sometimes looked around and tried to catch the researcher’s eye during funny moments.
The need to communicate with laughter may have deep roots in our development as a species, speculates Addyman. Evolutionary biology suggests it’s a way for humans to share with other humans — and thus, to belong. While he is still teasing out why children needed to signal their enjoyment of the cartoon to whoever was there, he thinks it has to do with the idea, raised by Oxford University anthropologist and primatologist Robin Dunbar, that laughter could be a replacement for the earlier primate behavior of grooming. “Grooming was a one-on-one, unfakeable investment of time in somebody else,” explains Addyman, and it created trust among group members as well as a sense of community.
If peekaboo fails, try tickling — but please limit it to the babies you know. The importance of a sense of belonging explains another result from Addyman’s original survey. In it, tickling was the most popular answer to the question: “What is the one thing sure to make your baby laugh?” But if a stranger did the tickling, the baby became scared.
So, what really makes babies laugh? “My one-word answer is ‘people,’” Addyman says. “If you want to make it two words, it’s ‘adult attention.’ Or, ‘human connection.’” Take peekaboo, for instance: Compared to other games, such as making funny noises or using puppets, it is, he explains, “pure social interaction—it really is about the eye contact and the connection with the baby.” As anyone who’s played peekaboo knows, the key moment is when, as Addyman puts it, “you come back into eye contact with them, and the fact you’re keeping the game going is delightful and causes them to laugh.” The baby’s laughter is their way of sharing and rewarding you for this prolonged attention. “They’re having a conversation with you,” he says.
But we’re still very much on the frontier when it comes to the science of baby laughter, says Addyman. Among the broader questions that he hopes to explore someday is: How does a baby’s laughter play a role in their learning process?
He thinks laughter could be an expression of what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” a joyful state that involves alert engagement with a task and a feeling of control.
Babies “seem like they’re being made happy when they get something new,” Addyman says. Given laughter’s social power, it could be that babies laugh to reward other people for staying engaged in the learning game and for helping them forward. Their delight, and the help they continue receiving because of it, are, he adds, “part of what drives them forward to master the next thing, gradually achieving greater and greater mastery over the world.”
Research contact: @TEDx