Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

To consider the Tanganyikan laugh epidemic as an exotic quirk of an alien culture is to miss the broader implications of the phenomenon. Have not we all experienced a lesser form of the epidemic? Recall your own experience with “fits” of nearly uncontrollable laughter (laughing “jags”). Innocent bystanders are also sucked into this vortex of social biology. Once initiated, laughing jags are difficult to extinguish, a point noted by several television newscasters who have suffered laugh attacks during broadcasts. Heroic efforts to stifle such outbursts often make things worse. The laugh tracks of broadcast comedy shows produce their own mini-epidemics in the name of entertainment. The neural mechanism responsible for laugh epidemics replicates behaviour that it detects, producing a behavioural chain reaction. Similar mechanisms are involved in the infectiousness of yawning, and perhaps crying, coughing, and other simple, stereotyped acts that are replicated by group members.

Laughing fits are weirdly self-perpetuating. How they start isn’t really important – it might be something funny or it might not, but however it’s set off, the laughter gains a life of its own, strengthened by social reinforcement, i.e. when others join in. (I think most people find comedy funnier in company than alone.)

It reaches the point where you’re laughing independently of explicable amusement, and almost anything is fodder for uncontrollable comedy and for continuing the laughing fit. Eventually it may become physically uncomfortable, even slightly painful, and you might have to look away, avoid eye contact, or leave the room in order to stop and renormalise.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger - Dance at Molenbeek

‘Dance at Molenbeek’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

In a similar vein, Provine mentions various historical outbreaks of synchronised behaviour, such as the St. Vitus’s dance mania that swept parts of Europe in the Middle Ages. He notes that secluded groups seem especially susceptible to such collective compulsions, with convents playing host to some of the odder examples:

One nun in a large French convent started mewing like a cat, triggering a chorus of contagious mewing that swept through the sisters. Eventually, the nuns gathered daily for several hours of communal mewing, a performance that continued until stopped by police who threatened to whip those who continued. Even stranger is the epidemic of biting nuns in the fifteenth century. One nun began biting her companions, triggering an epidemic of mutual biting that engaged all of the sisters in the convent, spreading to other convents and eventually to the mother house in Rome.

These and other incidents are described briefly here. Provine suggests that while such cases are bizarre, “it’s parsimonious to view them as extreme, sometimes pathological instances of acts that are adaptive at lower levels” – much as phobias are – and in the case of laughter might hint at the evolutionary value of coordinated behaviour. Just be careful where you mew.

18 Responses to Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

  1. Happened to me once when attending a rather serious lecture. I got a fit of the giggles for some reason I can’t remember and had to leave the lecture theatre. Most embarrassing.

  2. A cleverly unusual topic for a post!

  3. Dragnfli says:

    One of the happiest people I know is a Laughing Yoga instructor. There really is such a thing.

  4. Stan says:

    Gerry: Inappropriate laughter anecdotally seems very common, such as at funerals, church, lectures and so on. The more solemn the occasion, the more intense the impulse to laugh can be. It’s a remarkable reaction.

    Citizen Dread: Glad you enjoyed it.

    Dragnfli: There certainly is. Alan Watts was an advocate, as this audio file (3.5 min.) shows, and he was a pretty cheerful guy too.

  5. John Cowan says:

    The biting epidemic sounds pretty sexual; it’s perhaps not surprising that it burst out among nuns, not only because of the vow of chastity, but the vow of obedience, too.

    Mark Twain tells, as an ancient anecdote even in his day, the story of the man who travels between small towns giving humorous lectures (as Twain sometimes did). Often the only suitable public space was a church, and the lecturer in the anecdote thought his talk had been a failure, only to find out later that “it was so funny, we almost laughed right there in church!” Perhaps similarly, a deconsecrated Catholic church in one American town was being used as a bar, causing outrage among the local Catholics, and an eventual counterblast from the priest in the form of an open letter in the town newspaper, denouncing the protesters for not knowing the difference between the Church of Jesus Christ and a building with a steeple.

  6. David Morris says:

    Sometimes the complete opposite (dead silence) happens when the preacher deliberately attempts to be funny! (At least in churches I’ve been in at the time.)

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hmm… I’m aware of the ‘singing nuns’—-the jolly French Holy Sister from way back in the ’60’s w/ her chart-busting pop-tune “Dominique”, as well as the current young nun competing on the Italian version of our American singing competition, “The Voice”, and of course the ‘flying nun’ of movie fame played by Sally Fields. But my word… the ‘biting nuns’ have to take the proverbial cake… or more aptly, the communion wafer.*

    I have to concur w/ regular commenter John Cowan, that this extended biting frenzy appears to be related to some kind of psycho-sexual aberration, considering, as John alluded to earlier, the strictures of celibacy in the cloistered confines of convent life.

    As old Freud might have argued, all that suppressed, or unexpressed (natural) sexual energy and erotic desire must be sublimated, one way or the other. So apparently these ‘nibbling’ nuns were satisfying their erotic, oral-centric urges w/ a twist of sadism thrown in for good measure, through chomping down on one another.

    Hmm… I wouldn’t make a habit of it. (Sorry for the lame pun. I couldn’t resist.)

    *No sacrilege intended.

  8. Stan says:

    John: I wondered if it was some kind of sublimation too. It seems quite possible, though I wouldn’t assume so. I hadn’t heard that Twain anecdote. Funny how ‘holy laughter’ has turned that deep-rooted cultural expectation on its head.

    David: Or a scattering of forced, polite pseudo-laughter, which is little better. Expectation plays a part here, I suspect: to some extent people find things funny when they anticipate doing so, and vice versa.

    Alex: I had a similar hunch, even down to the Freudian jargon sublimation. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it would go some way towards explaining the underlying cause. I’d like to see a film of the event, starring Tilda Swinton maybe.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Stan… I couldn’t resist a droll followup on your suggestion that a feature film dramatizing this odd ‘biting nuns’ phenomenon might be cool. So I’ve taken the liberty of coming up w/ a handful of possible titles of such a provocative, bizarre filmic subject.

      –“Chompin’ at the Habit”
      –“Nuns Gone Wild”
      –“Bite, Eat, Love, Pray”
      –“Tooth or Consequences”
      –“Bite Me!/ Not a Vampire Flick”
      –“The Nuns of Navarone”

      Hmm… I can hear a collective, massive GROAN in cyberspace… but I can take it. Ha! (I could see the visionary British filmmaker Peter Greenaway directing this one.)

      I like your choice of the androgynous, IMHO, brilliant Brit actress, Tilda Swinton, as the lead. But I could see both Dame Helen Mirren and the lovely French former model/ turned actress, Marion Cotillard, sinking their teeth into co-starring, or supporting roles. The exquisite, classic beauty Cotillard has that arresting large gap between her top front teeth… very sexy in my view. Magnifique!

      (Rumors of another gap-toothed celeb trying to get the part, namely Elton John, are just that… rumors. Although the Rocket Man in nun’s habit would be a curious, slightly perverse twist, to an already pretty twisted cinematic tale. Ha!)

      • alexmccrae1546 says:


        A little casting faux pas in that last commentary. I meant the gap-toothed, fetching French actress Lea Seydoux as a ‘biting nun’… not Marion Cotillard… although either would be delightful in the role, I’m sure, in playing off Mother Superior, Helen Mirren. Just sayin’.

  9. Seems similar to when we cry and then seek to prolong the behavior by thinking of other sad things :(:

  10. TeeTimer says:

    The only person I laugh the most is my best friend. She makes me laugh even if I am sad.

  11. […] written before about contagious laughter and how strange it is. Ali Smith’s brilliant novel The Accidental describes a prolonged laughing fit […]

  12. […] On a semi-related note, see my earlier post on contagious laughter. […]

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