What makes babies laugh so much?

Babies laugh a lot, but do they really understand the joke? Very little research has been carried out into the laughter of babies, but a British team led by Caspar Addyman, doctor of developmental psychology, has placed it at the heart of his research. According to him, studying things that make babies and small children laugh may teach us a lot about their cognitive and social development.

The scientific literature has already given us a few clues. It has already been noticed that the creation and the understanding of humor follows cognitive development from a very young age, and that a baby’s sense of humor becomes more sophisticated as it grows up. Dr Addyman wanted to go further and provide more evidence on this matter, which is why he came up with “The Baby Laughter Project”, which has two objectives. First of all, Dr Addyman hopes to confirm his hypothesis according to which babies laugh when they learn new things and changes in the causes of their laughter follow key stages in their cognitive development. Then, he would like to confirm work carried out on adults showing that laughter is by nature a social phenomenon, thereby providing new information on the social and emotional development of babies.
The project consists in collecting a huge amount of information from parents about the laughter of their children - no older than two years old - using online surveys and videos. The questions mainly concern the circumstances when the laughter occurred, in particular situations, places, the time of the day and the people who make them laugh the most.

Dr Addyman’s team has already gathered 500 surveys from 25 countries, and published a preliminary report last October.
The initial results show that many babies start to laugh from around the age of three months, and that the things that make them laugh vary from one baby to another and change with age. Very young babies that start to become aware of their body are very sensitive to funny actions that involve an interaction with their body (for example tickling). They also start to understand the physical world around them and playing around with that amuses them greatly. However, with the game of peek-a-boo, older babies (around a year old) appear to understand the social dimension to the game.

As Dr Addyman says, the project is not over, and it is still too early to draw any major conclusions. It appears, nonetheless, that laughing is central in a baby’s development, and it could be used wisely by adults. It could be used, in particular, by psychologists and parents as a way of communicating with babies because smiling and laughing appear well before language.
Source: Addyman, C. & Addyman, I. (2013) The science of baby laughter. Comedy Studies 4(2) : 143-153

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