Laughing babies: A live chat with Caspar Addyman

Dr Caspar Addyman is a developmental psychologist, specialising in learning and laughter in babies! He is at Goldsmiths University in London. He studies the way babies make sense of the world, and why babies laugh so much. He works on The Baby Laughter Project, collecting videos and field reports from people about what makes babies laugh.

We had a live chat with Caspar on 30th November 2016, and here is the transcript of what was discussed.

Q: Do you want to introduce yourself and explain a bit about your work?

I specialise in the study of learning in the first few years of life and have researched such topics as how we learn our first words, our first abstract concepts and how our sense of time develops. I run behavioural studies with infants and sometimes with adults. I also build neural network models to explain *how* we learn these new skills.

But my most popular research has involved investigating the role of laughter in early life. I run a website for this, the Baby Laughter Project (http://babylaughter.net). which conducted a global survey of thousands of parents asking what makes their babies laugh. Parents also send in their videos which are used to illustrate aspects of why laughter is much more important than it first appears.

Weirdly no other baby psychologists were studying laughter. Even though it is one of the best things about babies. Well one of the best things full stop.

Q: WHY wasn’t anyone else studying baby laughter? Laughter seems like a basic human universal and crucial to everyday life, relationships, everything!

I think scientists were afraid of not being taken seriously. And it’s also very tricky to study…Laughter is a spontaneous thing.. hard to bring that into the lab. I’ve tried and hasn’t always been a success. That’s why we started with a survey and youtube videos 🙂

Q: So what did you find out from your surveys?

Babies first smile around 1.5 months and first laugh around 3.5 months. But with some individual variation. Laughter starts social, babies laugh at/with people not things. Most things get funnier with age. Babies think mummy and daddy are equally funny.

Q: Hmph!

Parents *think* boys laugh more than girls (but this may well be a bias). Peekaboo is universally popular but tickling most reliable way get a baby to laugh. Babies are moral and don’t laugh at other people falling over, so Freud was wrong that child laugh is based on superiority or schadenfreude!

Q: That is interesting. Because grown ups do laugh at someone falling over. What age does it change?

Well sometimes they do laugh.. have a video on my site of 1year old laughing when her brother falls and bonks his head
http://babylaughter.net/blog/your-babies-020-infant-schadenfreude/ but their first reaction is concern and empathy. perhaps once they learn that fall isn’t so serious they find it more comical.

Q: “Laughter starts social, babies laugh at/with people not things” Does this mean that babies laugh, e.g. because someone is smiling at them, and not because they are wearing a funny hat or something?

Because someone is giving them attention. Laughter is shared. The best quote about laughter is from Danish musician and comedian Victor Borge: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” I think that gets really to the heart of laughing babies.

Q: It’s a form of connection? (And also evolution’s way of stopping us throwing the baby out of the window)

Yes, connection and communication.

Q: So when do babies start laughing socially?

It varies between babies but I think laughs and smiles can be social right from the start.
Here’s baby cosmo responding to tickling at 3 weeks old. most of the response is because it is mummy tickling him http://babylaughter.net/blog/welcome-readers-daily-mail/

Q: You also get babies into your lab and experiment on them. What do you do?

Yes, we’ve tried a few things in the lab. We tickled a few babies. We were interested in what it would do their physiology.

Q: What does it do?

But we had issues with the babies not being in the right mood and difficulty with our heart rate recording equipment. Need to redo that when I have some funding.

We also had mum and a stranger sitting opposite the babies taking turns to either laugh or yawn at the babies. The laughter condition wasn’t ideal because the grown ups felt quite silly/awkward trying to fake a laugh.

Yawning isn’t contagious in babies and toddlers.

Q: Yeah I’ve noticed that with my daughter. Why is it contagious in older people?

No-one really knows why yawning is contagious. But it’s also contagious to dogs!

Q: Someone told me on twitter once that babies are trying to smile and laugh at your from the start, but they just don’t have the muscle control at first. Is that true?

Babies can show genuine smiles even in the womb. But very early on (below 3 months) their chest muscles are really coordinated enough to laugh properly. If they do laugh when little they sound a bit like chimpanzees!

Q: Do chimpanzees laugh? In fact, do other animals laugh?

Yes, chimpanzees “pant-hoot” which equivalent to laughing. Their ribcage isn’t set up for laughing like we do. I’m told gorillas and orangutans have equivalent of laughing. but don’t know what it is like. Oh and rats seem to laugh!!!

Q: So what is your research from the videos showing the funniest things are? And does it differ by gender, age etc?

Peekaboo and tickling are the funniest things…
http://babylaughter.net/blog/baby-laughter-survey-scientific-update/
Most things seem to get funnier as babies get older. Although we stopped our survey at 2 and 1/2.

No gender differences in what babies find funny. but parents seem to think boys laugh more. But I doubt boys do laugh more.

Q: That’s really interesting about parents thinking that, why do you think that might be the case?

Cultural biases.. boys seen as more boisterous.

Q: My son is finding tickling hilarious atm, that and running away from me in the garden. I’m not sure if I have ever noticed him laugh at something by himself, I think its always with someone

That would be what I’d expect. We got 3 year olds to watch funny cartoons on their own or in groups. They laughed 5 times as much in company.

Q: Is more research put in to negative emotions as they cause adults more issues?

A: yes, historically lots of research is about what is wrong with people, not what is right with them.

Q:  So what is the most interesting thing you have learnt about laughing infants?

That’s a good question. I think it is incredible that laughter is one of babies earliest forms of communication. And it’s a bit like the opposite of crying. Although one weird thing about laughing babies is that they can be in hysterics one second and completely deadpan the next. I’ve got a few good videos of this.. I will dig them out…here we go.. http://babylaughter.net/blog/laugh-wait-laugh-wait-laugh/

Q: Does laughter mean they are happy inside or can they fake it (as they laugh more in company too)?

With babies I think it’s usually what you see is what you get. Although some Japanese researchers claim they’ve identified when babies cry but don’t really mean it.

Q: Re the hysterics / deadpan thing, could it be that adults are socially conditioned to “wind down” a bit before stopping laughing? Or is there some physiological difference?

It might be that adults memories are better so the hilarity stays with them longer.

Thank you so much for giving up some of your evening to us Caspar, it’s totally fascinating.

Please tell all your baby loving friends about my book.
https://unbound.com/books/the-laughing-baby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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