What's So Funny? Experts Examine the Serious Side of Humor

From the frontiers of laughter research, scholars offer these words of comfort: if you are mortified of dancing for fear of being the butt of jokes, fret not, you are far from alone.

There's even a word for it — gelotophobia. Sound like a disorder involving Italian ice cream? No, it's the potentially debilitating fear of being laughed at.

The condition — the term comes from gelos, Greek for laughter — was among the topics being discussed this week at a four-day meeting of the International Society for Humor Studies, an Oakland, Calif.-based assortment of psychologists, sociologists, linguists and other academics who probe funniness from every conceivable angle.

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To wit: the timing of punchline perception in Chinese jokes; a new Japanese technique that measures electrical currents in people's diaphragms when they laugh hard; a look at humor on Italian TV under Silvio Berlusconi; and a Spanish presentation on humor and lovemaking, this one with the punned title "Let's Make Laugh."

The setting for all this debate was the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of "Don Quixote," the mad knight who was always good for a laugh as he tilted at windmills.

The president of the humor society, British sociologist Christie Davies, offered insights Tuesday on the state of humor in today's world.

Among other things, he said, jokes in eastern Europe were a lot better when the communists ran the show.

"Once you have a democracy with free speech, you have fewer jokes," said Davies, an emeritus professor at the University of Reading, in England. "Jokes, in many ways, are a way of getting around restrictions on what you can say. That was a very important factor in eastern Europe."

Jokes in general tend to come in waves, the last of which mainly sprang from the United States in the second half of the 20th century and spread in translation to many other countries, their authors unknown, he said.

"They just come out of nowhere. They are the jokes of ordinary people," Davies said.

And, he added, President George W. Bush deserves credit for the way he digests people poking fun at his intellect. "He tells jokes against himself. And that is very striking for a politician."

As for gelotophobia, psychologist Willibald Ruch of the University of Zurich said it was first proposed as a distinct phobia — and given a name — about a decade ago.

He said the condition has probably been around "forever" but went unnoticed because neurology and other hands-on researchers tended to dismiss laughter as meaningless, even spontaneous outbursts of it in people with brain injuries.

"Studying the negative effects of being laughed at is entirely new," Ruch said.

A typical gelotophobia case would be someone who hears a stranger laugh and thinks he's the target. In an extreme case this could cause the person to sweat, have heart palpitations, tremble and simply freeze up.

"So, yes, they would not be behaving properly," Ruch said.

Ruch said his team has surveyed 23,000 people in 75 countries and in every one of these gelotophobia appears to be present to some degree, affecting between two and 30 percent of the population.

"Within Europe, Britain is on the top. Absolutely on the top," he said.

Incidence in the U.S. is about 14 percent, slightly below that of Britain.

Ruch declined to say which country topped the list globally, saying his team is trying to get the data published first in a scientific journal, but allowed that some Asian and African countries are very high up.

At the conference here, researchers from Australia, China and Japan also presented findings on gelotophobia among their citizens.

Academics from elsewhere addressed how humor can be a tool in everything from hospitals to nursing homes to prisons.

Spanish social worker Maribel Riezu Ochoa spoke of a program aimed at weaning inmates off antidepressants through laughter. Her group included members of the Basque separatist group ETA and major organized crime bosses.

She recalled hugging one particularly furious and humongous inmate and persuading him to don goofy red plastic lips as he gave speech on his personal problems.

The whole meeting — counselors, wardens and prisoners — erupted in guffaws.

"We concluded we are all devils but we are all angels, too," she said.