The 'standup scientist' revealing the secret of laughter

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 10/15/2013, 9 p.m.
I'm in a room built for laughter and I'm fighting the urge to faint. Or vomit. Or at least dab ...
Scott also performs with the university's Bright Club -- a group of researchers who use comedy to deliver their message on stage.

By Sheena McKenzie

CNN

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I'm in a room built for laughter and I'm fighting the urge to faint. Or vomit. Or at least dab at the beads of sweat forming on my upper lip.

The 46-year-old talked to CNN inside the university's anechoic chamber, a sound-proof room where researchers record laughter, later playing it to people while scanning their brains with fMRI scans. They found no difference between how men and women understand laughter.

The 46-year-old talked to CNN inside the university's anechoic chamber, a sound-proof room where researchers record laughter, later playing it to people while scanning their brains with fMRI scans. They found no difference between how men and women understand laughter.

If you're not great with small spaces, then an anechoic chamber probably isn't an ideal place to conduct an interview. Barely large enough to fit two chairs, with every surface covered in foam wedges and a TV bolted to the wall, the sound-proof bunker has the unnerving appearance of an apocalyptic Big Brother Diary Room.

It's the type of place where nobody could hear you scream -- and that's exactly the point. This echo-free room is where University College London scientist Sophie Scott has been recording laughter, in an effort to find out what makes us giggle and why.

"I don't like coming in here, it makes my head feel thick, like I've got a load of blankets dropped on me," said the 46-year-old professor of cognitive neuroscience, as we sit down to talk about her work.

"This is where we record a lot of our emotional stimuli. We try to make people laugh in here, which is something of a challenge. We've also made people cry in here, so that was a day in the park -- crying in an anechoic chamber, the perfect storm," says Scott before adding her own cheerful chuckle, her large cartoon moon earrings jangling in agreement.

Laugh out loud

How do you send someone into stitches, in such an uncomfortable environment? YouTube clips help -- that's where the TV comes in. But the best trick is being with friends. In fact, we're 30 times more likely to laugh when we're with other people, according to Scott.

As part of their experiments, Scott and her team recorded two types of laughter in the anechoic chamber -- real, uncontrollable whooping, and posed, deliberate, chuckling.

They then played the recordings to over 1,000 people while scanning their brains with fMRI.

"When people heard the posed laughter, there was more activation in brain areas associated with 'mentalizing' tasks -- ie. trying to work out what someone else is thinking," said Scott.

"Real laughter was much less ambiguous than posed laughter -- if someone is really laughing hard, it's easy to understand what they are doing."

They also found men and women processed laughter in much the same way.

"We have a myth that women and men use communication very differently -- that men aren't emotional and women are somewhat too emotional," said Scott. "It's not the case."

Standup scientist

Scott is a woman of infectious merriment. Her conversation is sprinkled with warm chortles, and even the message alert on her phone is a cackle.

As a child growing up in Lancashire in the north west of England, she was surrounded by parents who were "big laughers," and recalls them singing silly songs to the point of hysterics.