Laughter And Tears
( Originally Published 1936 )
No ONE CAN EXPLAIN MYSTERY OF LAUGHTER—COMMON TO ALL
WE can explain some of the most complicated processes in the working of your body—processes so obscure that you do not even know that you perform them. But no man on earth can explain the mystery of laughter—an act so universal and common that life begins with it, and it is shared by emperor and clown.
Why should the contortion of the muscles of the face, and the emission of a series of noises due to the spasmodic contraction of the diaphragm, indicate joy?
Recent studies by Kinnear Wilson on pathologic laughing only deepen the mystery. Pathologic laughing may be defined as "laughter without cause."
There is an ironic touch in the account of some of the patients. A man of 66 used to walk around the hospital with his eyes glued to the ground: if he so much as raised them to meet anyone's gaze he was immediately overcome by uncontrollable laughter, which sometimes lasted half an hour and left him weak to the verge of exhaustion. His figure might serve as the apotheosis of cynicism: the world is so ridiculous that he cannot bear to look at it. But as a matter of record he had a hemorrhage into a small area of his brain.
How superficial the mechanism of our emotions is may be learned from the cases of destruction of the facial nerve on both sides. The facial nerve innervates the muscles of the face—those which are moved in laughing and smiling. Charles Bell, who discovered its properties long ago, wrote that possibly the "influence of passions such as those of laughing and crying might be lost in consequence of affections which destroy the entire power of the nerve." And sure enough, we bave a case in which the facial nerves on both sides were paralyzed, and not only did the patient never laugh, but felt no desire to laugh at anything. Her sense of merriment was destroyed when the muscle fibers which made grimaces were paralyzed.
A somewhat contrary situation is reported by another physician who had a patient similarly affected—with facial diplegia due to a disease of the brain. The face bore a serious character contrasting forcibly with his frame of mind. He retained his good humor and sometimes laughed heartily—as if behind a mask, because the face was grave and motionless while the sound of laughter prevailed. And that, he said, was the hardest part of his lot to bear—that his laughter was of necessity solemn.
TEARS As GREAT A MYSTERY As RELATED PUZZLE—LAUGHTER
Even more inexplicable is the related mystery of tears.
Although no explanation is satisfactory, it is possible to dredge up a philosophical reason for laughter. The smile, for instance, has been explained as the outcome of the primitive bestial habit of baring the teeth as a form of warning. The wolf shows its fangs to let the enemy know it can rend and bite. The human smiles to show the world that while disposed to be friendly, he has weapons of defense if he should be aroused. The smile is a badge of superiority. "Let there be no trouble between us," the smiler says, "because if there is I know you; I am superior to you; you merely amuse me." All fighters are smilers, including the president of the United States.
Laughter is merely exaggerated smiling. That succession of shouts is to show the enemy who has fallen into difficulties that you are not a person to be trifled with. You have energy and power—and teeth.
But how can one explain tears? Why, because of someone's death, should fluid containing salt and traces of potassium, exude from your lachrymal glands?
Crying and laughing are in the center of the emotions. "I was so angry I cried," you say, or, "she wept from happiness." "He laughed until he cried." It is possible that certain spots in the brain are centers for laughing and crying. Studies reveal that certain brain lesions which cause the victim to laugh incessantly, are paralleled in the case of weeping. When destruction of the central nervous system occurs in special ways or areas, the victims are subject to fits of uncontrollable weeping.
An interesting sidelight on the subject is the support these studies give to the Lange-James theory of the emotions. This theory supposes that emotional states follow the appropriate muscular actions rather than precede them. You are not frightened and then run away. You run, and as you run you become frightened. You do not feel jolly and then laugh. You laugh and that makes you feel jolly.
There is at least this much to the Lange-James theory, that the continuation of the appropriate muscular actions certainly intensifies the emotion. To that extent, certainly, the studies with which I have been dealing lend it support. There is the report of a young patient with a brain disease following influenza, who frequently broke into tears for no apparent reason. A sudden brief attack of this sort made no difference in his mental condition, but repeated bouts had the effect of saddening him, and of bringing on tears legitimately motivated by the thought of the affliction under which he suffered.