I find laughter most fascinating because of how contagious it is. When everyone else is laughing, it’s nearly difficult to hold back. There have been protracted laughing fits where nobody could stop; some people even passed away. There exist laughing churches and laugh therapies based on the therapeutic benefits of laughter. Tickle Me, Elmo, the 1996 must-have toy, burst out laughing after three consecutive squeezes. All of this results from our love of laughter and our inability to stop laughing with others. This is why comic television shows have laugh tracks, and theatrical audiences occasionally contain “laugh plants”: individuals hired to elicit wild laughter at any joke.
Even between species, laughter has a contagious quality. I frequently hear my chimpanzees laughing while playing rough and tumble activities below my office window at the Yerkes Primate Center. I find it difficult to control my chuckle. It sounds very joyful. For apes, possibly the first humans, tickling and wrestling are typical laugh-inducing activities. Its social significance is confirmed by the fact that self-tickling is infamously ineffectual. And when young apes adopt their playful look, their friends join in just as quickly and efficiently as we do when we laugh.
One manifestation of our primate sensitivity to others is shared laughing. We are all physically and emotionally interconnected, unlike Robinson Crusoes living on separate islands. In the West, where there is a heritage of individual freedom and liberty, it may seem strange to say this, yet Homo sapiens are highly susceptible to peer pressure.
Not in the higher levels of imagination or the capacity to consciously imagine how we might feel if we were in someone else’s shoes, but precisely here is where empathy and sympathy begin. It started much more simply, with the synchronization of movements, such as yawning or crying when others yawn or running when others laugh. Most of us have gotten to the point where we yawn even at the thought of yawning—as you may be doing now!—but this only occurs after an extensive face-to-face interaction.
Additionally, yawn contagion occurs between species. Almost all animals exhibit the unusual yawn, described as a “paroxysm respiratory cycle marked by a standard cascade of motions throughout a five- to ten-second period.” When I once saw slides of horses, lions, and primates during a talk on involuntary pandiculation (the medical name for yawning and stretching), the audience started pandiculating. The yawn reflex opens a window for mood transmission, a crucial component of empathy because it quickly sets off a chain reaction. This makes the fact that chimpanzees yawn when they observe others doing so all the more remarkable.
The strength of unconscious synchrony, which is as ingrained in us as in many other species, is shown in yawn contagion. A yawn is a simple example of how synchrony can be manifested, but it can also take place on a bigger scale when moving or traveling. It is simple to understand its survival importance. One of the birds in your flock suddenly takes off. You take off simultaneously, leaving no time to process what is happening. If not, you might become lunch.
Alternately, your entire group falls asleep and settles down, which causes you to do the same. Coordination of actions, essential for any moving species, is made possible through mood contagion (as most primates are). If my friends are eating, I’d better follow suit since my opportunity to forage will be lost if they leave. Like the passenger who doesn’t use the restroom after the bus has stopped, the person who doesn’t keep up with what everyone else is doing will suffer.
Weird phenomena are produced by herd instinct. At one zoo, a group of baboons gathered on top of a rock and fixed their gaze in unison. They neglected to eat, mate, and groom for a whole week. They kept gazing at an unidentified object in the distance. The monkey rock was featured in local publications, which speculated that perhaps the monkeys had been startled by a UFO. The truth is that no one knew the cause other than that the baboons were all obviously of the same mind, even though this theory had the distinct advantage of integrating a description of primate behavior with evidence of UFOs.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, known to walk generally at home, would suddenly transform into a distinctively un-English cowboy when he found himself in front of the cameras next to his friend President George W. Bush. With his arms swinging slack and his chest out, he would strut. Bush, of course, always strutted like this and once stated that in Texas, doing so is referred to as “walking.” Identification is the lure that pulls us in and causes us to imitate the circumstances, feelings, and actions of individuals who are close to us. They become role models, inspiring us to emulate and empathize with them. Children frequently imitate their same-sex parent’s gait or voice tone when they pick up the phone.
How do chimpanzees imitate one another? Does he absorb the other’s physical movements and become one with them? Or does he not require the other and instead concentrate on the issue the other is having? One way to test this is to have a chimpanzee demonstrate to another how to unlock a puzzle box that contains treats. All the watching ape needs to know is how the device functions. He might notice that something needs to be moved up, or the door slips to the side. While the second type of imitation only requires technical know-how, the first type entails reproducing observable manipulations.
We know which of these two explanations is true because of clever tests in which chimpanzees were exposed to a ‘ghost box. A ghost box gets its name because it opens and closes mysteriously on its own without the assistance of an actor. Such a box should be adequate if technical proficiency were the only factor. However, keeping chimpanzees entertained while they watch a ghost box with its many components moving and repeatedly dispensing rewards won’t teach them anything.
Apes need to see other apes to learn from them: Identity with a physical body made of flesh and blood is necessary for imitation. We’re just starting to understand how significantly bodily processes affect human and animal cognition. The relationship between the body and the brain is a two-way street rather than our brain acting as a tiny computer that directs the body. The body creates internal feelings and communicates with other bodies, and it is via these processes we develop social ties and an understanding of the world around us. Every perception or thought we have involves our bodies. For instance, did you know that one’s bodily state affects how one perceives things? A tired individual perceives a hill as steeper than one who has had enough sleep simply by looking at it. A person carrying a bulky backpack will see an external object as being farther away than it is compared to a person without one.
Or ask a pianist to choose one of his compositions from the ones he hears. The pianist can recognize his play even if he has just played this brand-new composition once, in quiet, on an electronic piano without headphones. He presumably imagines the kinds of physical experiences accompanying an actual performance while he listens. Listening to himself makes him feel the most like himself, allowing him to recognize himself through his body and hearing.
Although the study of “embodied” cognition is still in its infancy, it has significant consequences for how we view interpersonal interactions. We unintentionally inhabit the bodies of others around us, causing their actions and feelings to resonate within us as if they were our own. This enables us and other primates to imitate behaviors we have observed in others. Although most body mapping is unconscious and concealed, it can occasionally “leak out,” as when parents make chewing mouth movements while spoon-feeding their child. Parents are compelled to behave in the way they believe their infants should. Similarly, parents listening to their child perform a song frequently get thoroughly engrossed in it and mouth every word. When I was a little boy watching soccer matches from the sidelines, I vividly recall unintentionally kicking or jumping whenever one of the players I was rooting for received the ball.
A great shortcut to imitation is body mapping. The same can be observed in animals, as shown in a vintage black-and-white shot from Wolfgang Köhler’s well-known chimpanzee tool-use research. Sultan closely watches as Grande, one of the apes, climbs onto boxes she has placed to reach bananas suspended from the ceiling. Sitting some distance away, Sultan raises his arm precisely in time with Grande’s gripping motion. Another illustration can be seen in a chimpanzee caught on camera using a large rock as a hammer to crack nuts. A younger monkey is watching the actor while simultaneously swinging his own (empty) hand down in synchronization with when the first one cracks the nut.
I see social connection and camaraderie when I observe synchrony and mimicry, whether it involves yawning, laughing, dancing, or imitating. I watch a heightened version of the ancient herd instinct. It extends beyond the propensity for a crowd to cross the river at once while galloping in the same direction. The new level necessitates paying closer attention to what others do and learning from their methods. For instance, I once met a senior monkey matriarch with an odd drinking habit. She would immerse her entire underarm in the water before licking the hair on her arm instead of the customary slurping with her lips from the surface. Her children then followed suit, followed by her grandkids. The entire family could be easily identified.
Another instance involves a male chimpanzee who stumbled around resting on his bent wrist rather than his knuckles after injuring his fingers after a fight. Soon, the colony’s young chimpanzees followed the unfortunate guy in a single line and moved in the same direction. Primates instinctively mimic their environments, like chameleons that alter their color to blend in with their surroundings.
Whenever I returned from vacations in the north of the Netherlands, where I played with lads from Amsterdam, my friends in the south would always make fun of me. They claimed I spoke strangely. Unconsciously, I’d mimic the gruff northern accent when I came back.
One of the mysteries of human existence is how our bodies—including voice, mood, posture, and other bodily functions—are affected by different bodies. This phenomenon serves as the bond that binds entire civilizations. It’s also one of the most underappreciated phenomena, particularly in fields where people are taught to make reasonable decisions. We occupy nodes within a close network that binds all of us together in both body and mind, as opposed to each person considering the benefits and drawbacks of their activities independently.