Meetings & Your Brain

Lessons From the Chewbacca Mask Mom

A viral video begs the question: Just what is it about laughter that we find so engaging?

via Facebook
via Facebook

Candace Payne’s infectious howls of laughter, recorded in a four-minute video she took of of herself sitting in her car and wearing a growly electronic Chewbacca mask, has taken the Internet by storm. In less than a week, the video has gotten nearly 150 million views.

What’s going on? And does laughter have anything to do with meetings? 

It does, according Scott Weems,  a research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language and author of Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why. Executive Editor Chris Durso interviewed Weems two years ago, about neuroscience and humor in the context of the meetings industry. Here are some excerpts from their talk:

Weems: “It’s so easy to talk about humor in a very stuffy, cognitive way and talk about what happens to the brain, but when you really get down to it, it is a social phenomenon. …  [I]t serves a really good social purpose — if you’re laughing with someone, you’re getting on the same cognitive level with them.”

Laughter can help us think.

“Studies show that it’s very beneficial to include humor in talks. There’s one study that found that some presenters gave talks with their points in good, logical order, and some people had their points mixed up, partially at random, so there was not a good linear flow in their presentations … the presenters who included humor were still seen as organized even though they had their points mixed up.

“Humor can tie messages together, I think because it’s keeping our brains going. We’re building that relationship and thinking a little bit deeper when there’s humor involved in presentations.” 

Laughter bonds us together.

Studies “also have shown that humor is social and that when one person laughs, people around them laugh. Part of the reason for that is it is intrinsically social and it’s a bonding form. If you think about previous species or early in the evolutionary development, when apes meet each other they tend to show their teeth and make grunting noises — behaviors which are kind of a lot like laughter. …  In the wild, animals sometimes hit each other with sticks. We can’t do that, we live in a society, so laughter is a good behavior to have co-opted.”

But you can’t force it. 

“… [I]f humor comes across as forced, it tends to have the opposite effect. It happens in presentations, and in classrooms, too. If teachers use humor that is related to the subject material, students remember the material better, they perform better on tests afterward, because the humor meshes with what the teacher is trying to teach.

“If the humor is just extra — it doesn’t really fit in, the teacher is just telling a joke every now and then — it doesn’t help attention at all, and, in fact,  it can come across as forced and turn students off. I think any sort of presentation setting is the same way. If you try to make people laugh, or are basically using humor for humor’s sake, it doesn’t work as well, because not only do people feel manipulated, it doesn’t serve any purpose either. It doesn’t help people learn what you’re trying to talk about.”

“I think in a distant way this is also related to shared laughter. If you’re around somebody who is laughing and it’s obviously fake laughing — so they’re not laughing at whatever is supposedly funny, and you can tell that — that’s when shared laughter disappears. You’re not likely to laugh; in fact, you’re less likely to laugh. You feel like your emotions are being manipulated, so that’s always a danger.”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor of Convene.