Laughter and smiles transcend barriers of age, language and culture, and babies know this better than anyone. They don’t speak our language. They don’t share our culture; and they are at least a generation younger than us. All the same, we can easily share a laugh.
Spend any time with a baby and, assuming that they’re fed, clean and warm, they will put most of their effort into stealing your heart. Babies are gleeful, cheerful, charismatic and gregarious – inherent comedic qualities that ensure babies give cats a good run for their money in funny YouTube videos. Yet, while research in cognitive science has long recognised the importance of cuteness in early bonding, very few researchers have dug deeper. Until now. With a renaissance in what I like to call ‘positive psychology for babies’, we are starting to appreciate that smiling and laughter serve an important purpose from birth.
Laughter is primarily social. We laugh to connect and share our feelings far more than we laugh at jokes or the silly or surprising.
The thing that makes babies laugh the most is a human connection. All over the world, peekaboo is the most successful way to make a baby laugh. It is pure social connection. Surprise plays a role but the universal popularity is all because of the shared eye-contact and turn-taking. As you play the game, the baby is learning from you.
This may be the most important thing about laughter in young babies who are still too young to communicate in other ways. Their laughter captures our attention and when they have our attention they can learn from us.
And so ,bizarrely, the best way to make a baby laugh is to take her seriously. Give the baby your full attention and really concentrate on the baby. She will be delighted and laughter will probably follow 🙂
Three steps 1. Be prepared to give the baby your full attention – Put down your phone, you’ve probably got enough pictures already. 2. Let the baby lead the interaction – You are having a conversation but you must listen to her. 3. Don’t try to make the baby laugh – Work out what she’s interested in and help her learn a little bit more.
I’ve just started a new job in the Infant Lab at Goldsmiths, University of London. I am happy to report that my new boss tickles babies too. For science! Prof. Andy Bremner is interested in how babies learn about their bodies and their world. His most recent study with PhD student Jannath Begum Ali tickled babies to find out:
For a newborn baby emerging from the cosy womb, the outside world is much bigger, much colder and quite a different kind of place. At birth, the way newborn babies sense their environment changes dramatically. How do they make sense of all the new sounds, sights, smells and sensations?
Our new research has focused on the way babies experience touch, such as tickling. We’ve found that young infants of four months old, unlike older infants, are pretty accurate at locating where they’ve been tickled, even with their limbs crossed.
As a laughter researcher I am interested in tickling babies to learn more about laughter. For example, we want to run a study looking at how tickling and laughter changes babies heart rate, their hormone levels or their alertness. But it is nice to find my new colleagues are world experts on tickling babies. It seems like I’ve come to the right place.
This has also been covered in the New Scientist and the New York Times and elsewhere.
I love art, I love babies and I love the Burning Man festival that takes place every summer in the Nevada desert. So I was sorry I wasn’t there this year to see this sculpture:
Ukrainian sculptor, blacksmith, and designer Alexander Milov has produced a large wire-frame sculpture that features the forms of children that glow when day turns to night. The outer sculpture is two adults sitting back to back while the inner sculpture displays the two children touching hands
The most popular post on this blog is the one that asks ‘Should we tickle babies?‘ A lot of adults don’t like being tickled and babies can’t easily defend themselves. Perhaps we shouldn’t do it. Well, as this video of 9 month old baby Jaxton shows very clearly, babies really do enjoy being tickled. But they will also let you know once it gets a bit too much for them.
Thank you to Stacie, Jaxton and the rest of their family for sharing their video.
In several years of running the Baby Laughter project, I’ve been sent some wonderful and remarkable videos of laughing babies. This video of three month old Callan is one of the best ever. OUr research into baby laughter asks two simple questions; what makes babies laugh and why do they laugh. The answer to the first question is clear. Above all else it is people that make babies laugh. Laughter is first and foremost about social connection. We laugh in company, we laugh to share things.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people” – Victor Borge
But why laughter. Well, I think part of the answer comes from seeing that for babies, laughter and tears are two sides of the same coin. They are their first forms of communication. Tears say ‘make this stop’, laughter says ‘please continue’. This is obvious for crying but less so for laughter. But, as the millions upon millions of laughing babies on youtube show us, there is something very compelling about baby laughter too. Babies need to learn about the world and within that, the biggest mystery is other people. Baby laughter captures our attention and makes us give the baby our full attention. It is no coincidence that the most popular thing to make a baby laugh is the game of peek-a-boo. It is pure social interaction, and for a baby, pure learning.
This is something incredibly important to a baby. They need as much human interaction as they can get. And laughter is their way of persuading us to give it to them. And guess what, it makes you laugh too. Laughter serves a very important role for the baby and it is present from very early in life. So to me, although this video is completely remarkable, it is not entirely unexpected.
The video was sent in by his dad, Davide and filmed by his mum Sara. Thanks to Davide, Sara and Callan.
Fans of baby science and laughing babies should subscribe to the RealScientists twitter account. Every week a different scientist takes over to explain their work and show you what it is actually like behind the scenes. This week it’s my turn.
I specialise in the study of learning in the first few years of life and have researched such topics as how we learn our first words, our first abstract concepts and how our sense of time develops. I run behavioural studies with infants and sometimes with adults. I also builds neural network models to explain *how* we learn these new skills. My most popular research has involved investigating the role of laughter in early life. I run a website for this, the Baby Laughter Project (http://babylaughter.net). which conducted a global survey of thousands of parents asking what makes their babies laugh. Parents also send in their videos which are used to illustrate aspects of why laughter is much more important than it first appears.