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The Origins of Laughter

This week I have been looking over the slides from Brain & Mind and what caught my eye most of all was the study Ekman and Friesen (1980). These two researchers were interested in whether expression was innate or learnt. After looking at the expressions of members of a tribe who had no contact with the outside world, they concluded that expressions have ‘universal ground’ and so are innate. Inspired by this study, I began to think up as many theories as possible to explain humour and laughter as an evolutionary advantage. I eventually came to the conclusion that humour is a form of acceptance.

Acceptance is something of great important when being in a pack as you’re more likely to survive if you are accepted by the group. This idea of humour being a key factor of acceptance was supported by Owren and Bachorowski (2001) who argued that laughter and humour first evolved as a means of communication with other members of the tribe – language through expressions. This was examined in further detail by McComas (1923), he elaborated on Darwin’s point of view. Like Herbert Spencer (an admirer of Darwin), Darwin believed that laughter was more of a reflex action, this is explained as nervous energy being built up and in order to show this energy laughter is formed.

This idea of laughter being a nervous reaction or reflex is supported by studies which have determined the regions of the brain responsible for laughter. Wild & Rodden et al. (2003) found that laughter as an expression involves independent neuronal pathways. This consists of the amygdala, thalamic/hypo subthalamic areas and the dorsal/tegmental brainstem. These systems are ‘involuntary’ and ‘emotionally driven’. This shows that what Spencer and Darwin were trying to argue is quite correct, that laughter is a physiological act rather than a psychological one.  After observing 128 undergraduates reaction to a ‘laugh box’, it was concluded that laughter is contagious (Provine, 1992). It was summarised that laughter evokes laughter because it is activated by a laughter-specific auditory-feature detector. This is relevant to the neurological origin of laughter in terms of communication. It was also mentioned that laughter is thought to of been the very first forms of speech production.

This idea of acceptance through laughter is still applicable today as we often find we get along better with those who have the same sort of humour as us. I believe this topic needs to be further examined to determine whether we are more drawn to those who have a similar sense of humour. If so it would further support the evolutionary perspective of laughter and humour.


Ekman., P. & Friesen., W.V (1980) Constants Across Cultures in the Face and Emotion .

McComas., H.C. (1923) The Origin of Laughter.

Owren., M.J. & Bachorowski., J.N. (2001) The Evolution of emotional experience: A “selfish-

gene” account of smiling and laughter in early hominids and humans.

Provine., R.R. (1992) Contagious laughter: Laughter is a sufficient stimulus for laughs and



Due to an argument this week about learning preferences and peoples capability to learn I am going to discuss the reasons why certain disorders impair people’s learning. The argument was basically saying that people can be conditioned to learn whatever they want whatever their disorder. However, unfortunately, I was very pessimist during this debate. Be warned, this blog will probably make you angry or offended but I admit the things I’ve wrote about are very one-sided and in some cases bias.

It is true that people who have damage to the brain or have mental retardation (MR) can only reach a certain learning limit. However what about conditions like dyslexia? It is widely known and accepted that dyslexics have deficits in reading and phonological awareness. Some would argue that this could easily be overcome with practice and dedication. However, recent brain imaging evidence has shown that they also have visual processing abnormalities as a result of magnocellular stream (Eden & VanMeter et al., 1996). This could solve why those with dyslexia have problems with reading and could explain why it is dyslexics cannot be conditioned to read at the same level as those of their own age who do not have dyslexia. The cause and effect argument can run into place here. For example, it could be argued that dyslexics have visual impairments because they have not been forced as everyone of their age group because of their condition, or maybe people just gave up on trying to help them with their reading. However, it may perhaps depend on the severity of the dyslexia. This is something that has to be further studied in order to make improvements within the education system.

Autism is thought to be an ‘extreme male brain’ and affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills. Brothers et al. (1990) proposed a number of neural regions that are important where socializing is involved these are: the orbito-frontal cortex (OFC), superior temporal gyrus (STG) and amygdala. Using fMRI scans we know that the amygdala is activated when recognizing someone’s facial expressions. However, it was found that those with autism when trying to recognise facial expressions have activated fronto-temporal regions but not the amygdala. This shows that a person with autism have amygdala impairments. It is believed that the socializing and communication skills that those with autism lack can be taught. However, sadly, studies have shown that this is not the case. A study conducted by Ozonoff and Miller (1995) showed how five boys with autism who took part in a four and a half month social skills training program were affected. These boys were matched for age, IQ and severity of autism. There was also a no-treatment control group. However, despite the treatment, parent and teacher ratings of social awareness did not improve for either the treatment or the non-treatment group.
Although it is unfair to say that all dyslexics cannot learn to read as well as those who do not have dyslexia or that people with autism cannot to taught to socialise, there are definite brain processing impairments that weaken their ability in either socialising or intelligence. As it is an internal working system that is at fault when it comes to these disorders it is difficult for them to learn the abilities they lack and pharmaceutical treatment would be better then for disorder if such a thing existed then behavioural type therapies.


Baron-Cohen S., Ring H.A., Wheelwright S., Bullmore E.T. & Brammer M.J. (1999)

Social Intelligence in the Normal and Autistic Brain: an fMRI Study


Eden G.F., VanMeter J.W., Rumsey J.M., Maisog J.M., Woods R.P. & Zeffiro

T.A. (1996) Abnormal Processing of Visual Motion in Dyslexia Revealed by Functional Brain Imaging

Ozonoff S. & Miller J.N. (1995) Teaching Theory of Mind: A New Approach to Social

            Skills Training for Individuals with Autism

It is believed that we use our childhood observations of relationships as templates to mould our future relationships and this is why instinctual childhood attachment is so important. Bowlby’s theory on attachment has recently been looked at from a neuropsychological point of view to find evidence for it. It has been found that the control system which regulates instinctive behaviour. This control system is known as the ‘senior executive of the emotional brain’. This system is expanded in the right hemisphere and this area is dominant during human infancy (A.N Schore, 2000). This is evidence that attachment is a biological, instinctual act.

            However, if attachment is inhibited through neglect and abuse, how does it affect the brain? Glaser (2003) found that some biochemical, functional and structural changes in the brain happen as a result of being maltreated as a child. Other research has shown a difference in brain volume following childhood neglect and abuse. This research was conducted by Keshavan et al. (1999) who used 44 maltreated children and 61 non-abused controls. They were matched for their age, size, gender etc. The mean ages were 12 years old. The maltreated children were found to have 7% smaller cerebral volumes in comparison to the control participants. Also, the midsagittal areas of the corpus callosum were smaller. Simantov et al. (1996) comments that these changes could be due to raised cortisol levels from the stressful traumatic childhood experiences.

More research must be undertaken in this field. I believe future experiments should be longitudinal to look at brain scans of newly born babies and see how affection shapes their brain. This should then be compared to newly born babies who are neglected due to single-parenting or other reasons and see how their brain development goes over time. However, this type of research could provoke inappropriate use of ethical guidelines and it would also be difficult to get a sample. 

There is considerable evidence for changes in brain function in association with child abuse and neglect. There seems to be similar personality traits in all children who were maltreated. They seem to all have hyperarousal, aggressive responses and educational under-achievement. However, the whole nature or nurture argument plays a role. It has been found that mother’s of maltreated children are insecurely attached themselves, these children who were adopted by affectionate parents became insecurely-attached individuals, was this as a result of genetic factors or their nurture. 






Schore A.N (2000)

Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain

Glaser D. (2003)

Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

During a Louis Theroux American prison documentary he interviewed a homosexual couple. This couple before prison had both a wife and children and were both alpha, masculine, heterosexual males. However, whilst being confined in prison they found that they were both homosexual. This documentary cannot be generalised to other prisons as it was filmed in America and therefore has cultural-bias. Nonetheless, it still got me thinking as to whether there is an explanation for homosexuality in prisons.

It has been estimated that 44% of inmates will have a homosexual experience whilst in prison. According to Kirkham (1972) an unwanted homosexual experience in prison, such as rape, will traumatize that person so greatly that they will find it too difficult to return to the sexual behaviours of a heterosexual person. As a result they will become either bi-sexual or homosexual in order to explain the experiences. There in evidence for this explanation. For example, Humphreys (1975) interviewed an ex-inmate who had homosexual experiences in prison, he was reported saying:

Well I started off as the straight young thing. Everyone wanted to suck my cock. I wouldn’t have been caught dead with one of the things in my mouth!  … So, here I am at forty – with grown kids – and I’m the biggest cocksucker in the city!’

This statement explains the massive transition that this man went through in his sexual behaviour. Kirkham (1971) suggested that homosexuality is an expression of masculinity and dominance in a prison atmosphere and that this becomes addictive so as a result this man has continued his homosexuality as he has been conditioned to believe that it asserts dominance.  This dominance Kirkham talks about is expressed in this short video from a homosexual inmate in which he describes sucking a man’s penis as making them ‘helpless’ as a somewhat punishment for being in debt:

There is not much new research concerning homosexuality in prison, even though it does still go on. If I was to do research in this field it would involve biological explanations of homosexuality in prisons. In my opinion, there is too much testosterone in prisons as there are obviously no women around. Therefore, some inmates must attempt to make themselves have the submissive characteristics of a woman, e.g. being ‘the bitch’. This unconsciously balances out the testosterone atmosphere. This is possible as there are examples of men living their prison life as women:

It would be interesting to test testosterone levels of inmates before, during and after they go to prison in order to see if there is any change which could be evidence for balancing out testosterone levels.

Prison homosexuality could also be explained from an evolutionary point of view. For example, the alpha and the beta relationship could be being sustained within a prison environment to either keep some form of peace or to recreate the everyday, typical relationship in order to have some aspect of normality within prison. However, this could never be properly studied. However, some inmate’s explain their homosexual experiences as being completely heterosexual as they’re thinking of the man they’re having intercourse with as actually being a female.

At the end of the day, all this could be explained as human being’s simply being highly sexed creatures who crave the need for physical intimacy and as they’re is no women in prisons, heterosexual men will find other means of this intimacy.

The question is what is the main causes of transition of sexual behaviour in prisons, is it biological, evolutionary, environmental or something else?

As this is quite a saddening, strange blog, I’ll leave it on a light hearted note:


Edward Sagarin (1976)

Prison Homosexuality and its Effects on Post-Prison Sexual Behaviour

Laud Humphreys (1975)

Tearoom Trade Impersonal Sex in Public Places

In this blog I hope to develop an argument as to how addiction develops and what factors make you more prone to having an addiction. When I was studying for the exams on clinical health Psychology, I read that there was no such thing as an addictive personality. However I hope to find evidence that says otherwise and argue whether or not it is a viable construct.

Addiction has been defined as physical and psychological dependence on psychoactive substances, whether it be nicotine, alcohol, heroin, cannabis etc. G.F Koob (1997) explains addiction through neurochemical substrates. Koob also recognizes that other chemicals within the brain act upon the psychoactive substance. Once this is achieved changes in the neurochemical system take place which causes positive reinforcement, leading to addiction. This neurochemical explanation for addiction focuses greatly upon how brain mechanisms work. It suggests that our brain’s chemical substrates act against us and make us addicted to harmful substances. However, this is not always the case as some people will become addicted to a substance instantly, whereas, others will not. According to B.E. Robinson (1996) addiction depends upon how you were brought up. When discussing workaholics, Robinson linked this specific addiction to family dysfunction and the effects of addiction on a Type A personality. This emphasizes how background and moral upbringing correlates with having an addictive personality or not.

In my opinion, an addictive personality does exist and there are certain factors within someone’s personality which make addiction to a substance more possible.  P.E. Nathan’s (1988) research on personality in relation to alcoholism and drug abuse revealed that there exists a correlation between anti-social behaviour in childhood and adolescence and alcoholism in adulthood. There is evidence for such a relationship in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria for antisocial personality disorder. It recognizes that depression frequently accompanies alcohol and drug dependence. This may be a cause or effect of anti-social behaviour, as those who are depressed have episodes of anti-social behaviour and so look to alcohol dependence for comfort. However, it may be that alcoholism causes the depression or anti-social behaviour itself.

John S. Kerr (1996) argues that the term ‘addictive personality’ has been used to imply that there is a particular personality type. Many reviews have been carried out by individuals such as, Carroll (1978), Landis (1945)  and Miller (1976) , who all came to the same conclusion that an addictive personality does not exist as there is no consistent support for it. However, a review of alcoholics was carried out and it was found that alcoholics and drug abusers had similar personality traits: low self-esteem, marked  sensitivity  to  expressions of  approval or  disapproval, high anxiety, low frustration tolerance, hedonism, helplessness, ineptitude, lack of friends, gregariousness, being loners, guilt, futility, depressiveness, dependence,  demanding attention,  immaturity,  psychopathy,  impulsiveness, shyness, aggression, nonaggression,  verbally  adept,  pleasant,  likeable, sociable, with  an  interest  in  the  arts,  especially music. However, many of these factors could be a cause rather than an effect of their addiction.

In order to find whether a personality type exists I would ask a large sample of alcoholics and other drug abusers to carry out a personality test. This would allow quantitative data to be recorded and then we can clearly see if there exists a correlation in personality and addiction. After this I would give them an MRI scan and see how their brain responds to photos of typical ‘happy family’ photos or aggressive family situations photos. If many drug abusers responded negatively to these photos, it would give evidence that family dysfunction plays a role in addiction.

Addiction needs to be further studied to find if there are underlying family issues that result in people being more prone to an addictive personality or whether it is just positive/negative reinforcement caused by neurochemical activity.



G.F. Koob (1997)

Neurochemical Explanations for Addiction]

B.E. Robinson (1996)

Work Addiction as a Function of Family of Origin and Its Influence on Current Family Functioning

P.E. Nathan (1988)

The addictive personality is the behavior of the addict.

J.S. Kerr (1996)

Two Myths of Addiction: The Addictive Personality and the Issue of Free Choice

The title of ‘Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns’ is an accurate title as it specifies that only Carmelite Nuns were used in this sample rather than just referring to them as ‘nuns’. Otherwise this would give the impression that all types of nuns were involved in this study, such as Cistercians, Trappists, Carthusians, Carmelite and Augustinian nuns. Also by using the term ‘correlates’ the reader can assume that it is not stating facts but merely a correlational approach to the findings.

The aim of this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience in a group of contemplative Carmelite nuns. However, the way in which the news article presented the aim of the study was slightly different and inaccurate. They presented their title as ‘Nuns prove God is not a figment of the mind’. This title is inaccurate as the word ‘prove’ is not scientific and gives the wrong impression of the results. Although the results of the study show that different brain regions were activated when recalling a religious experience, this does not necessarily ‘prove’ that God is or is not a figment of the brain. This is why the Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns’ article uses the term ‘hypothesize’ rather then ‘proves’. It states that from the findings they can hypothesis that the right middle temporal activation during the mystical condition was relating to contacting a spiritual reality.

The article of the study takes into account the limitations of the method used. For example, it states that the subjects were asked to recollect a mystical experience rather then asked to invent one. Therefore, they could have just been recollecting the feelings they experienced in their memory of it, such as a sense of ‘awe and wonder’. Also the newspaper article cannot be classified as truly accurate as there are spelling mistakes, for example, at the end of the article it reads ‘a neuropsychologist at Laurentian University in Canada, to stimulate emporal lobes artificially’. However, there is no such thing as ‘emporal lobes’, they meant to say ‘temporal lobes’ but they failed.

There should to be more evidence involved when coming to a firm conclusion on how areas of the brain activated can create a religious experience. Further studies need to be carried out and compared to this study before any conclusions can be drawn. In future studies, it would be wise to use a larger sample with nuns from different branches involved. This would give a basis for comparison for the results.

The Lie of Debriefing

In this blog I’m going to discuss whether debriefing actually works on participants or whether debriefing is a word psychologists use to make everything seem ethical. Debriefing is basically a mutual discussion between the researcher and the participant to inform the participant about the results, nature and conclusion of the study. From this it is hoped that they will not be psychologically changed. However, although by saying, ‘it’s ok, we debriefed the participants!’ we can breathe a sigh of relief, how do we know that the participant are fine afterwards? It could be that certain people have undiagnosed mental problems, such as paranoia or depression, and we’re just feeding their illness with worries. Although some would argue that participants are closely examined to see if they have psychological problems, some may be able to hide their issues well. For example, Robert Thompson was the name of the 10 year old boy who was involved in the James Bulger case. Despite playing a major role in the murder of Bulger, his psychologist found that he clearly knew the difference between right and wrong. Therefore, what could ever stop a paranoid or depressed person act for the chance to partake in a study? 

It has been said that with some studies researchers will refrain from giving too much information on a humane basis. If a participant realised that they were withholding some information they’d delude themselves and there would be a huge frenzy about it. With Milgram’s electric shock study, I’m pretty sure no amount of debriefing would stop the participant’s feeling some level of guilt from the study. I think for a participant to know that they had the potential to be a German Nazi would be a rather scary and unchangeable thought.  

In some studies, it is best to delay the main debriefing for a while. This can happen if there is more than one stage separated by an interval of time and debriefing the participants could affect the results of the study. This means that participants have to go a length of time without fully understanding what they have committed to. 

As most studies deal with deception, participants are not always guaranteed an effective debrief. When and if a participant is believed to be psychologically harmed by a study, great lengths are put in to try and change this situation. However, researchers are not qualified to counsel or offer forms of help. Therefore, why use debriefing at all if from this blog I have shown that it is apparently correct to go lengths of time without debriefing and sometimes that debriefing is ineffective anyway?

A Psychology of Religion Rant

In this week’s blog I’m going to discuss the he Psychology of Religion. Religion has been seen to have the potential to ‘brainwash’ people, however, it also has the potential to do good. Religion is an appropriate way of manipulating people as it can be based on superstition, and superstition is what our ancestors based their beliefs on. As a result we are easily swayed and influenced by religion. Some religious people are brought up within a religious family and so feel obligated to continue their spiritual believes throughout their lives. However, some people have spiritual experiences which make them religious. People like this have usually had some rough times in their lives and they turn to religion for faith and hope. This could make religion seem like a source which preys on desperate, and therefore, easily influenced people. In a way religion is important as in my opinion it developed the conscience, which has been passed down to each generation. In the past 2000 years, when religion apparently began, religious textures focused upon living life well and helping those around you. It focused upon principles and rules which basically stood for moral believes. People took these principles in and this civilised the social order. However, as time went by people adapted these principles and so changed their point of through, and as a result this changed it caused opposition. This opposition gave religion a bad name and people corrupted their own religion and made it into a business rather then a spiritual gathering. It could be argued that people use prayer as a form of self-determination and talking to your inner self, and this could explain why people automatically feel better about everything. What I hope to understand is why people choose  become religious? In my mind it is an evolutionary thing in which people unconciously are aware of what they’re ancestors believed in and as a result follow that trend. However, there must be other factors involved…

Is Anorexia Evolutionary?

Had to go off the topic of research methods and discuss something which I think is actually interesting… thank the Lord. Anorexia Nervosa is something I’m fascinated by, but from what deep roots does anorexia stem from? I am debating with myself as to whether it is an evolutionary thing. I have come up with the idea that perhaps mothers had to feed as much to their children and in turn sacrificing the food for them, this could explain why it is that anorexics generally feel full of energy and unfazed by starvation. This could be because they are unconsciously associating the food they could eat as potentially the means to feeding others with that food.  A more mainstream evolutionary answer is that when there was no food people would have to adapt. Guisinger explains that “When nomadic foragers were starving, it wouldn’t make sense to hunker down and just not eat. If you’re starving it means that there’s no food there, and so you should move on–normal adaptations to starvation would get in the way.” Although, how would you be able to test this theory.

Some argue that anorexia is caused by genetics. For example, if your mother was anorexic, you may develop the same disorder. However, the question that crops up is whether it is genetics or has the child just observed something about their mother’s eating pattern. There is also a biological explanation for anorexia in which people with anorexia tend to have high levels of cortisol, this is a brain hormone related to stress, and decreased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine, which are associated with feelings of well-being.

Some argue that anorexia mainly comes from the media’s pressures to be skinny. However, in my opinion this does not seem valid as women through history have strived to be skinny. They even went to such lengths as swallowing tape worms.

In my opinion, anorexia nervosa mainly exists for evolutionary means, whether this means that being slim attracts mates, feeds your children or helps during the times when there is no food. However, any experiments done to find this out would be made purely on interpretation of responses and assumptions. If I was to carry out a study to find out whether the evolutionary explanation for anorexia was true, I’d interview and give questionnaires to those who appear to be suffering from anorexia but as questions like ‘Do you feel more attractive when you don’t eat?’ and ‘before you take food to eat do you think that someone else may need this later?’

This is my third blog and I want to discuss whether it is right to involve children in research. I will start by discussing what I believe to be unethical in these circumstances. Ethics states that the researcher must protect the participant and make sure that the study has not altered their state of mind. For adults this is relatively an easy task because when you debrief them, they can move on. However, when a child is subject to a study, it may influence them more then it would an adult.

Informed consent is also an issue. If you ask a child to take part in a study because they will be given a bag of sweets afterwards, then they are obviously going to take part. This was certainly true for the children who took part in The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (Mischel, 1972). In this study, the children were sat down in an empty room with nothing but themselves and one marshmallow on a plate. They were told that if they ate the marshmallow, they would not get a second marshmallow later. So, they had to wait, in a room, with a marshmallow tempting them otherwise they would not get another one. There is a link at the bottom of this blog to a humorous video of this study. This study shows that children are easily bribed, and easily influenced, so they are going to part-take in a study which may affect them. The parents are the ones who give consent for their child, however, the parent does not usually know the point of the study, and so can it be ethical?

Depending on the behaviour of the child, he/she may wish to act up and so the researcher’s results would be affected. For example, if a child was taking part in a memory game, in which they would need to turn over cards to find a matching pair, they may not be bothered and not try to match the cards in the time that they are capable of. This is the ‘screw you’ effect. Demand characteristics are also likely to play a part when conducting research on a child.

However, it is important to conduct research on children as it serves many purposes. For example, Ainsworth’s Strange Situations study (1970) found four different attachment styles when observing how children acted with their mothers when they were in the room with them, when they left the room, when a stranger walked into the room and when they were left in the room with a stranger. Ainsworth’s findings showed people how important the relationship between a mother and their child is and how maternal separation effects a child’s development and how he/she acts in future relationships.

I think that children are too easily influenced to take part in studies, and they may not understand the terms the researcher uses, especially during questionnaires and interviews. However, does children being subject to research make it unethical, or is it important for progress?