- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2001

Cows wear bells, it is said, because their horns don't work. Then there's the observation that the ratio of an igloo's circumference to its diameter is equal to Eskimo Pi. Perhaps some have heard of Sosumi, the new sushi bar for lawyers.
Uh-oh. Now the race is on to find the funniest joke on the whole planet. Two British researchers began poring through hundreds of one-liners, puns, riddles, witticisms and shaggy dog stories on Friday, all in the name of science.
Humor is the key to humanity, say psychologists Richard Wiseman and Mike Lowis, who will labor in a brand-new Laugh Lab with the blessings of two universities and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
"A lot of cognitive input has to go into a joke to make it funny," said Mr. Wiseman. Humor, agrees Mr. Lowis, can reflect "intelligence, language skills and the life experience to know what's 'normal.' Laughter is important to help us survive."
With the help of volunteers, the curious and a new Web site (www.laughlab.co.uk), the pair will parse punch lines for a year, editing out the X-rated tales and methodically determining what jokes prove universally funny. Age, sex, nationality and personality come into play; professional comedians have also been enlisted to gauge the hilarity.
The researchers are also testing JAPE, a "joke analysis production engine" for computers that invents puns from various word groups. So far, the program has proved that the human sense of nuance and timing is required for a decent joke. JAPE's nascent efforts are falling a little flat even with staid scientists.
The program's determination that a "ferocious nude" was really a "grizzly bare" only drew some polite titters from scientists who gathered for the project's recent startup in Glasgow.
Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Lowis are not alone in their jocular quest.
Another Laugh Lab is already in operation, this one inside Room 507B at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Psychologist Robert Provine has plumbed the highs and lows of humor for years, tracing the human giggle back through our cave man past, back when it was "panting associated with physical play."
Through computer analyses of laugh patterns, Mr. Provine has found which qualities lend the "laughness to laughter." It is a companionable activity he said; we are 30 times more likely to laugh in the company of our fellow wags than when we are alone.
Psychologist Jo-Anne Bach-orowski of Vanderbilt University, meanwhile, specializes in the sound of laughter, according to gender. She has recorded various men and women making "songlike, gruntlike and snortlike" laugh patterns, with distinct messages attached.
Things get very specific indeed. Laughing, it seems, is the real music of the mating dance. Miss Bachorowski's research recordings include such entries as "High pitched, songlike (female)" and "Unvoiced, snortlike then cackle (male)."
She has found, in fact, that guy grunters get more girls than guy gaffawers. While women initially tend to trill for attention, men keep their chuckles in check, lest they frighten the lady away.
"It may be more effective for a male to initially produce somewhat innocuous laughs at a low rate, and to expand his laugh repertoire in the course of a developing relationship," she noted.
Last but not least, University of California psychologist Christine Harris measured the "tickle responses" of 107 persons to find out whether tickling is a true social interaction. She went so far as to construct a fake tickling "machine," so that her test subjects would think that some mechanized fingers were tickling their feet, rather than some mischievous human.
The chortling experiment, which was featured earlier this year on PBS' "Scientific Frontier," ultimately proved that tickling and laughing had nothing to do with socializing or humor.


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