Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The 'standup scientist' revealing the secret of laughter

October 15, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Meet Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London studying laughter. The "standup scientist" uses comedy to share her findings. Meet Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London studying laughter. The "standup scientist" uses comedy to share her findings.
HIDE CAPTION
Standup scientist
Sound of silence
Take a seat
Brain scan
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet Sophie Scott, the "standup scientist" uncovering what makes us laugh
  • Discovered brain reacts differently to real and posed laughter
  • Speaker at Ada Lovelace Day, female scientist believed to be first computer programmer
  • Laughter not confined to humans -- chimpanzees, orangutangs, and even rats laugh

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- I'm in a room built for laughter and I'm fighting the urge to faint. Or vomit. Or at least dab at the beads of sweat forming on my upper lip.

If you're not great with small spaces, then an anechoic chamber probably isn't an ideal place to conduct an interview. Barely large enough to fit two chairs, with every surface covered in foam wedges and a TV bolted to the wall, the sound-proof bunker has the unnerving appearance of an apocalyptic Big Brother Diary Room.

Scientist Sophie Scott.
Scientist Sophie Scott.

It's the type of place where nobody could hear you scream -- and that's exactly the point. This echo-free room is where University College London scientist Sophie Scott has been recording laughter, in an effort to find out what makes us giggle and why.

"I don't like coming in here, it makes my head feel thick, like I've got a load of blankets dropped on me," said the 46-year-old professor of cognitive neuroscience, as we sit down to talk about her work.

Read: Meet the powerhouse behind Britain's biggest arts center

"This is where we record a lot of our emotional stimuli. We try to make people laugh in here, which is something of a challenge. We've also made people cry in here, so that was a day in the park -- crying in an anechoic chamber, the perfect storm," says Scott before adding her own cheerful chuckle, her large cartoon moon earrings jangling in agreement.

Laugh out loud

How do you send someone into stitches, in such an uncomfortable environment? YouTube clips help -- that's where the TV comes in. But the best trick is being with friends. In fact, we're 30 times more likely to laugh when we're with other people, according to Scott.

From the family farm to the U.N.
Is 'giving back' in your work ethic?
Warren Buffett's advice to Melinda Gates

As part of their experiments, Scott and her team recorded two types of laughter in the anechoic chamber -- real, uncontrollable whooping, and posed, deliberate, chuckling.

They then played the recordings to over 1,000 people while scanning their brains with fMRI.

"When people heard the posed laughter, there was more activation in brain areas associated with 'mentalizing' tasks -- ie. trying to work out what someone else is thinking," said Scott.

"Real laughter was much less ambiguous than posed laughter -- if someone is really laughing hard, it's easy to understand what they are doing."

They also found men and women processed laughter in much the same way.

"We have a myth that women and men use communication very differently -- that men aren't emotional and women are somewhat too emotional," said Scott. "It's not the case."

Read: From supermodel to supermogul

Standup scientist

Scott is a woman of infectious merriment. Her conversation is sprinkled with warm chortles, and even the message alert on her phone is a cackle.

As a child growing up in Lancashire in the north west of England, she was surrounded by parents who were "big laughers," and recalls them singing silly songs to the point of hysterics.

Unsurprising then, that the mother-of-one calls herself a "standup scientist," performing with the university's Bright Club -- a group of researchers using comedy to deliver their message on stage

"It was one of the most terrifying things I've ever done, but I've completely got the bug for it now, because it's such an interesting way to approach your work," said Scott.

Read: Saudi Arabian comedian revealing all on stage

Ada Lovelace

This week Scott will again be taking to the stage to help mark Ada Lovelace Day, in honor of the 19th century female mathematician, often credited as the world's first computer programmer.

Scott will be one of many prominent female scientists, engineers, and technologists talking about their work at Imperial College London.

"It's still a case that on the whole, the stereotype of the scientist is the gray beard, white coat man in a laboratory -- and of course, that's not true," said Scott.

"One of the important things to remember about women in science is actually, there's loads of them. It's just that we lose them, we don't value them as much, we don't think they count in the same way."

It doesn't matter where you are in the world, laughter is a sound that people recognize
Sophie Scott

Indeed, Yale researchers have found potential employers still view young male scientists more favorably than their female counterparts.

Read: I'm a male feminist. No, seriously

Universal language

For Scott, laughter is more than displaying amusement -- it's a primal way of showing people that we like them and want them to like us.

"Laughter is the only positive emotion we found to be cross-culturally recognized. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, it's a sound that people recognize," she said.

"Interestingly enough, it's not constrained to humans. Chimpanzees laugh, orangutangs laugh, even rats laugh."

Scott pointed to studies done by U.S. scientist Jaak Panksepp, who found that rats made the same high-pitched "laughing" sound when they were playing, as when they were being tickled.

Such is the bonding power of laughter that it can even help make or break a relationship, as Scott explains: "Some of the things scientists are finding is couples who manage stressful situations with positive affect -- laughter -- are the people who stay together longer."

"Comedian Victor Borge said 'laughter is the shortest distance between two people.' I think what Borge was getting at was the intimacy of laughter. It's an expression of closeness."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
bbf
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0914 GMT (1714 HKT)
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1115 GMT (1915 HKT)
:KNOXVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Dolly Parton performs during a concert to benefit Dolly's Imagination Library & Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation at The University of Tennessee's Thompson-boling Arena on May 28, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 05: Debbie Harry of Blondie performs onstage at the Amnesty International Concert presented by the CBGB Festival at Barclays Center on February 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)
When titans of music Dolly Parton and Debbie Harry perform at one of the biggest music festivals on the planet, Glastonbury, who will be crowned queen?
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the many women in the world who have provided care, love and guidance for children who are not biologically their own.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1506 GMT (2306 HKT)
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most inhabitable environments on Earth.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 0750 GMT (1550 HKT)
Ahead of the release of her 14th studio album, take a look at the remarkable career of Mariah Carey, who went from curly-haired girl next door to elusive chanteuse.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
ADVERTISEMENT