Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Laughter: Getting to the bottom of bodily functions?

Isn’t it annoying how one week your favorite food is good for you, and the next week it causes cancer? Or how you can go from one doctor to another and be diagnosed with two different ailments for the same exact symptoms and test results? Shall we blame modern medicine? Perhaps, lord knows there are enough malpractice suits out there to suggest some people find this the most viable option. However, there is also the irrefutable fact that sometimes a general rule is just, well, a generalization. With something as complex and enigmatic as the human body, there can be no hope to explain away all of your particular bodily features and functions with a neat set of rules and theories. Our current study and readings in class are an attempt to understand such theories about the bodily function of laughter, and though I find that I have had experiences that fit each of the various explanations, there is still something lacking or unsatisfactory in the certain conclusions that they draw.

In testing out whether or not I agreed with the ideas of Spencer, Freud, and Descartes, I tried to think of recent things that had made me laugh. I finally landed on an incident that I am still embarrassed to admit laughing at. The fateful day occurred upon finishing a run with my roommate last year. We had ended at Boulder Garden Café and I had to stop into the bathroom to pull my hair back off my face before I browsed the food selection. I caught the door and walked in as someone was leaving and I guess since I hadn’t made any noise coming in, the other person in the bathroom felt safe and alone. Before I could take one step further they let out a tremendous sigh and the loudest fart I had ever heard. My response was immediate and uncontrollable, and had I not been near the bathroom door I might not have made it outside before my laughter erupted. I cried from laughing so hard.

But what was so funny about it? I don’t typically find physical humor to be funny, and let’s just say that though my brother has laughed many a time at farting in my presence, it’s never once made me giggle. I couldn’t find any explanation in Descartes’ theories, except that I wasn’t laughing from joy. I don’t really have cause to feel happy about someone else’s bodily function. However, I also didn’t find any admiration or hatred in it. I had no scorn for this person – after all, I didn’t even know them! Sure, farting is a natural part of the body and, as far as I know, does not detract from them as a person. In fact, if I thought someone had done it by accident, knowing I was there, and potentially being embarrassed by it, I wouldn’t have laughed at all because I would be so uncomfortable by causing them to feel awkward. Thus, I know I’m not laughing at someone else’s discomfort.

And Freud didn’t quite cut it either. I didn’t have a particular sense of superiority. Since when does “Not farting” count as a worthy achievement? Additionally, I didn’t find it in a sense of relief of escaping suffering in anyway. I wasn’t feeling anything in particular when I entered into the bathroom, except maybe a bit disheveled from running. I didn’t escape any feelings or have any fear of suffering coming on, so I wasn’t partaking in the higher form of humor as relief that Freud theorizes about.

Only Spencer’s theory, devoid of thoughtful emotional attachment to laughter, seemed applicable in this situation. I was certainly surprised by the event. My body, standing still as I was, had no outlet for the emotion. It wasn’t deserving of further thought because it was not exactly a profound sentiment that the other person uttered by the toilet. My only outlet was to put my body into motion through those naturally used outlets, and I couldn’t suppress it or control it – this energy had to be released. It is a bit different from the sneeze example and the tumble example that Spencer uses, however, because I had no nervous tension or great expectation upon entering the bathroom and I also had no sympathy for the person since they were unaware of my presence and thus would feel no embarrassment. Even this description, set to explain away the simple reactionary laughter, was still lacking in full detail. The only conclusion that I could draw from this mysteriously funny fart was that sometimes laughter just happens. Though we have studies that often help us to produce it and understand it, it is still like all other things connected to human emotion – very situational. Laughter is not something you can dissect and frame up into a standard measurement of joy or write off as good or bad.

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