Laughter Lab at London’s Cartoon Museum explores the science of humour

What is it that really makes us laugh? To find out, New Scientist visited Laughter Lab, an exhibition and social experiment at London’s Cartoon Museum.

Showcasing a wide selection of cartoonists from the museum’s collection, the exhibition explores our reaction to humour, “that thing that happens in your brain the moment before you burst out laughing or you smile”, says museum curator Emma Stirling-Middleton.

In the exhibition, cartoons are presented in pairs and people are asked to record which they prefer. “We thought it would be interesting to find out why people actually like cartoons and identify what makes some cartoons particularly amusing or engaging, and others less so”, says evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, who helped put together the exhibition.

Laughter Lab at the Cartoon Museum

A visitor takes part in the Laughter Lab experiment at the Cartoon Museum

David Stock

Dunbar says that laughter triggers the same mechanisms that underpin social bonding in all primates and plays an important role in our everyday social lives. “Laughing together in a group triggers the endorphin system in the brain, but also makes you feel more bonded to the people you do it with”, he says.  “I sometimes suspect if we didn’t laugh, we probably wouldn’t bother to talk to each other because it would become incredibly boring.”

Laughter is a relatively understudied field, one that Dunbar calls a “Cinderella” area of science. “Nobody takes it terribly seriously and that’s partly because it’s just an everyday part of our behaviour”.

The exhibition may help change that but Stirling-Middleton says it’s mostly about just having some fun. “I thought it’s been a really difficult couple of years and it would be really nice to do an exhibition looking at laughter which is lacking at the moment, ” she says.

Laughter Lab is on at the Cartoon Museum, London, until June 2022

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