A baby’s first laugh is a joyful milestone. Once they hear it, new parents will repeat whatever actions preceded the laughter over and over in order to provoke it again. It is perhaps not surprising that babies feel the same way about their parents’ laughter.
New research shows that babies as young as nine months old will repeat behaviors and test new behaviors in order to provoke laughter.
Laughter is an Emotional and Social Activity
Laughter is an important milestone in human social development. Babies first learn to smile at about 5 weeks of age in response to sensory stimuli, such as satisfied hunger or being held. Laughter usually develops around 3 months of age, around the same time that babies learn to smile in response to social stimuli like recognizing caregivers.
Both actions – smiling and laughing – create social connections between babies and other people. According to surveys done by Dr. Caspar Addyman, director of the Baby Laughter Project at the Birkbeck University of London, babies are more likely to smile or laugh when an adult is also doing it.
Babies also seem keenly aware of the social context around what is or is not funny. Dr. Addyman found that babies are more likely to laugh when they fall over than when someone else does. They also know to laugh when someone else reacts with laughter at a surprise event, such as dropping something, and to hold their laughter when someone else reacts with tears. In this way, babies’ laughter can be a sign of how their brains are developing to understand the world around them.
Humor is Evidence of Brain Development
Humor is a key to a baby’s interpersonal knowledge. Drs. Vasudevi Reddy and Gina Mireault, psychology professors studying how babies develop humor, argue that whether or not something is humorous is defined by the social context in which it occurs. For something to be funny, an incongruity needs to exist. In other words, something has to behave differently than we expect.
A second factor is that the unexpected needs to occur within a “playful frame.” Just because something is surprising doesn’t automatically make it funny. The reaction of the people involved – whether they are crying or smiling – contributes to whether or not one should laugh. “Getting” the joke requires that babies have prior knowledge of what is normal and the ability to understand social cues. One of Mireault’s recent studies shows that infants learn what is humorous by observing when their parents laugh and then reacting in kind to the situation.
Babies also learn, at an earlier age than expected, to use humor to create social connections. In their work, Reddy and Mireault videotaped babies interacting with caregivers. They witnessed many examples of infants as young as 9 months old creating incongruous or absurd situations. Some babies offered toys to an adult, but pulled them away at the last minute while laughing. Other babies blew raspberries and then blew more after realizing their parents were laughing.
Laughter Provides a Social Connection to Other Human Beings
While these behaviors may not seem like sophisticated “jokes,” infants’ behavior is in line with how older children and adults use humor. Adult laughter is not usually in reaction to a “joke,” but more likely a way to share a positive emotion with a friend. Seen in this light, Reddy and Mireault maintain that a baby’s attempt to create humor is evidence of fairly sophisticated thinking. In order for a baby to tell a joke, three conditions must be met. First, the baby must be interested in building a relationship and understand that he or she can use humor to reach that goal. Second, he or she needs to be aware that their actions cause a reaction in other people, what the researchers call “awareness of other minds.” And third, babies need to be able to predict other peoples’ reactions. After all, you can’t surprise someone if you don’t know what they are expecting, and you can’t risk that the reaction won’t be laughter unless you feel safe in the relationship.
Babies Perform Jokes, Rather than Tell Them
While your baby may not be able to tell verbal jokes, he or she is capable of humor before age one. And while his or her attempts at humor — blowing raspberries like the baby in the video or hiding toys from parents — may seem simple, the humor is evidence of sophisticated brain development and understanding of social relationships.