Why is the baby laughing?

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Laughter, smiling, and giggling happens in humans within weeks after birth, perhaps within days, and some think that smiling may even happen in utero.

Me, age 6 mos

I was an early-smiler. And, cute, too. How about you? I’m pretty sure I’ve been laughing since darned near the day I was born, literally since almost midnight January 5, 1941. I will explain how you might know that so that you can decide whether or not you have been, too.

As far as I can tell, the conditions in our middle-class Jewish home and family life, in West Philadelphia, made early-baby-smiling practically a sure thing. I was a healthy ‘bouncing boy’ (is that term still used?) with loving parents, a loving older sister, Phyllis, who giggled constantly as it turned out, our maternal grandparents living with us to help raise us, dad’s good job as the breadwinner, intelligence, musical talent, and the threat of war had not yet clearly arrived at our doorstep.
Even in a newborn so young that it has no ‘self’ awareness, there are conditions that incline the human brain to produce signals resulting in smiling and giggling, . The presence of the opposite conditions dis-incline the brain to send forth signals, with feel-good chemical signals for smiling and giggling. I was a natural to be an early giggler: healthy, pain-free, well-nourished, loved, protected, in a calm, predictable environment.


Juliet – age 2 weeks

Very modern neurological technology is showing how and why this works at a nearly primal and instinctive level in the enormously powerful health-and-reproduction-drive of human beings. Current science is backing up the earlier theorists on these matters. 

For many years, experts in the field of human development have said that laughter appears to be inborn in human beings while a sense of humor is something we develop over a period of years. I have been told that this has been further detailed by neurologists, saying that the neurological substrates that control laughing and smiling are mature at birth, but when the infant laughs in the cradle we don’t decide “That kid has a great sense of humor!”

Early baby-smiling used to explained as “the baby has gas”, but now we know better. Flatulence in young infants might be related to smiling because relief from discomfort starts the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain. The infant laughs before it has a sense of self and, while it is still pre-verbal and undifferentiated in the world, we can be certain that it does not have a sense of humor and is not responding to a joke. But, barring any anomaly of function, it has a brain that reacts in a healthy way to signals/information it gets from the body.

Juliet at 4 weeks

When the conditions are right, the laughter that occurs within a few weeks of birth might be called primal laughter; very basic and seeming instinctive. It may well be a result of the brain chemistry of pleasure. Primal laughter is spontaneous, uninhibited, and un-self-conscious. It is, perhaps, our most authentic laughter but,typically, it will be modified soon enough in an effort to minimize critical social pressures (“you laugh too loud”; “you snort when you laugh”; “quit your giggling!”). Most of us try to modify our laughter to make it sound more acceptable. In the process, we adopt a false laugh, and we lose memory of our joyful primal laughter.

Me at 1 year

What were your first days and weeks and months like? Were you an early smiling-baby? If so, then you were fortunate. You had some good luck. If not, you may have picked up your proclivity for laughter and humor a little later down the road, and you can still develop more of it right now.
Humor and laughter therapies, such as programs offered by World Laughter Tour, help people approach or re-create that authentic and pleasurable state. This experience has been reported by some who engage in practices known as laughter circles, and laughter meditation. Although there is not yet clear agreement on the definition of these practices, experts have confirmed that the experience of “authentic” laughter is real, pleasant and satisfying. More evidence-based research is needed, but until then, you are well-advised to get all the laughs you can.

And, while you’re at it, how about helping create a world in which the conditions are right for early baby-smiling, Nobody goes hungry, everybody has healthcare, education, is loved and calm, and peace prevails.
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About the Author

Steve Wilson

Award-winning psychologist, Steve Wilson, also known as The Joyologist and The Cheerman of the Bored, has spent 30 years specializing in applied and therapeutic humor with a humanitarian mission. As Director of National Humor Month, he intertwines science and ancient wisdom with substance and humor to create practical methods to lead the world to health, happiness and peace through laughter. More than six thousand people have completed his unique training in how to create therapeutic laughter, and tens of thousands more around the world have been uplifted by his talks, classes, books, and articles. He established the World Laughter Tour, Inc., in 1998, to be a rich resource and inspiration for improving productivity, health, and well being in business, healthcare and education. For more information https://www.worldlaughtertour.com and http://www.humormonth.com.