LOLCats may make us laugh out loud, but do the kittens in these adorable memes find their own behavior funny? I wondered about humor in the animal kingdom, so I reached out to Jonathan Balcombe, an ethologist who literally wrote the book (several in fact) on animal pleasure. I asked him about laughter in non-human animals.
Watch the video above and don't forget to tell your animal laughter stories in the comments section below. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. Do animals have a sense of humor? It may sound like a strange question, but we're animals. And we do, right? So what about other animals? Do they laugh out loud?
JONATHAN BALCOMBE: I think maybe we have to have two categories of laughter here. The sort of physical tickling-induced laughter and then the sort of cognitive joke-induced laughter, or some kind of trick word play or situation that makes us laugh. I think the first category, the evidence for non-humans having that experience of tickling-induced laughter is very robust. I mean just last week I found a paper called ‘Reconstructing the evolution of laughter in great apes and humans.’
CSM: That's Dr. Jonathan Balcombe. He's the Department Chair for Animal Studies at Humane Society University. He also wrote three popular books about animal pleasure and, as he calls it, mirthful behavior. We talked about laughter in animals. So they can be tickled, but do they laugh at, you know, jokes?
JB: Well there’s some decent evidence for that also in great apes. A gorilla who loves to run along with the keeper on either side of the cage bars--kinda sad that the gorilla’s the one in the cage--and then the gorilla will suddenly stop and the human keeps running by and that makes the gorilla roar with laughter or show a mirthful response like our laughter.
CSM: So we see laughter in great apes. And as much as that makes me smile, it doesn't really take me by surprise. I mean, we are great apes. We share a lot of behavioral commonalities with our primate cousins. But under a broader umbrella, we're also mammals. Which makes me wonder, do other mammals laugh?
JB: Do all mammals have a sense of humor? Can they all laugh? I personally would have some doubts. But often, you know, we make assumptions about animals and we discover later, so I like to be very liberal and give them the benefit of the doubt when there’s any doubt.
CSM: We do know that laughter has been extensively studied in rats, notably by Dr. Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University. Check it out.
JB: The challenge of any question about the inner experience, emotion, and feelings is they’re private. You know we can’t just go up to the rat and say ‘how ya feelin?’ ‘Oh, I’m laughing. I just love this being tickled.’ But what we can do is we can observe how they behave. The fact that they’re drawn to it, they come back to the hand, it’s magnetic for them, that certainly suggests strongly that it’s a positive thing. They like it, so we can certainly measure that. The fact that they make the same kinds of these chirps during this tickling that they make when they’re rough-and-tumble playing, it's something they also seem to gravitate towards. The same kind of chirps they’ll make when they’re enjoying perhaps food or a sexual encounter. So you know there’s a lot of ways of amassing evidence to support this.
CSM: We must always be careful not to anthropomorphize animals, or attribute human qualities to them, but at the same time, we can learn about ourselves by studying animal behavior. Because I can't say it enough times: we too are animals.
JB: We can’t help making the connection and it’s important to make the connection. I think the power of recognizing that another species has a mirthful response or is clearly enjoying something, we see ourselves in that. We realize even though we can’t get in the rat’s body, we can’t get in the dog’s or the chimpanzee’s or the orangutan’s body, we can see that that being (and I think that that’s the right word, not that thing, that being), that individual with a biography, not just a biology, is experiencing something akin to what we have.
CSM: Have you ever seen an animal laugh? Let me know on Twitter, Facebook, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
See all Talk Nerdy to Me posts.
Like Cara Santa Maria on Facebook.
Follow Cara Santa Maria on Twitter.