Most of us will laugh at a good joke, but we also laugh when we are not actually amused. Fake chuckles are common in social situations—such as during an important interview or a promising first date.
In a 2013 study, [Carolyn McGettigan, a cognitive neuroscientist at Royal Holloway, University of London,] and her colleagues scanned the brains of 21 participants while they passively listened to clips of laughter elicited by funny YouTube videos or produced on command (with instructions to sound as natural as possible). Subjects whose medial prefrontal cortex “lit up” more when hearing the posed laughter were better at detecting whether laughs were genuine or not in a subsequent test.
In a follow-up study in 2016, McGettigan and her colleagues recruited a fresh set of participants to rate the laugh tracks on various qualities, such as authenticity and positivity. They found that…both types of laughter engaged the auditory cortices, although activity in these brain regions increased as the laughs became happier, more energetic and more authentic.
“It doesn’t look like the brain is really working that hard to classify laughs as much as it’s working to figure out the vocalizer’s intention,” says Greg Bryant, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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