The Science of Joy: Exploring Human Psychology Through a Babies’ Laughter

A laughing baby crawling on the floor.

There's something irresistibly captivating about babies' laughter. (Image: Daniel Dash via Dreamstime)

There’s something irresistibly captivating about babies’ laughter. A beacon of pure joy and an indicator of good health, babies’ laughter can instantly lighten up a room and tug at our heartstrings. Parents employ all sorts of tactics to incite these delightful peals of laughter — from making funny faces and dancing to playing peekaboo or tickling their little ones. But what exactly causes babies to laugh? Dr. Caspar Addyman, a researcher at London Birkbeck University’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, is on a mission to answer this question.

Past research on infant emotions

Until the 1950s, the scientific community largely believed that infants lacked the capacity to interact socially or express emotions. Some even suggested that newborns couldn’t experience pain. However, research in the past five decades has refuted these notions, revealing that babies indeed feel and express a range of emotions. “Understanding babies also helps us understand adults,” Addyman says. “Babies are little scientists. They are discovering the world and through them we can discover a great deal, too.”

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Baby yawning as it rests in its mother's arms.
Research over the past five decades reveals that babies feel and express a range of emotions. (Image: Simplylove via Dreamstime)

Notably, Addyman is not the first to delve into the study of babies and their laughter. Charles Darwin studied laughter and other developmental aspects in his own son, while Sigmund Freud hypothesized that people derive happiness from others’ misfortune — a theory later debunked. Jean Piaget, a renowned developmental psychologist, argued that understanding babies’ laughter could provide insights into their minds and perceptions of the world.

Decoding laughter

In a bid to advance the understanding of babies’ laughter, Addyman spearheaded a large-scale survey through his BabyLab. He presented his initial findings at the International Conference on Infant Studies in Berlin. The study, which involved around 1500 parents worldwide, investigated when babies first laughed, what triggered their laughter, and what toys they found amusing. Parents also contributed videos and reports of situations that made their babies laugh.

Addyman’s study revealed that newborns start smiling within the first six weeks, often during active sleep, when the brain is stimulated. Remarkably, even in the first month, a high-pitched noise may elicit a smile from your baby. Laughing typically begins after about three months. “Ninety percent of babies have smiled in the first two months and laughed just a few weeks after that,” Addyman shared.

Interestingly, the universal trigger for babies’ laughter is the game of peekaboo. This finding intrigued Addyman, who believes there’s more to it given that even older children find it amusing.

The universal trigger for babies' laughter is the game of peekaboo.
The universal trigger for babies’ laughter is the game of peekaboo. (Image: Roman Samborskyi via Dreamstime)

Laughter as a tool to communicate and bond

Addyman suggests that laughter in babies is not just a response to funny stimuli, but is also a means of communication and bonding. He found that babies were more likely to laugh during peekaboo when they were with an adult, indicating their desire for social connection. “Babies are social and want to connect with others,” he explains. Therefore, engaging with them through play can strengthen your bond and create lasting memories.

The future of research on babies’ laughter

Through their work at BabyLab, Addyman and his team have made significant strides in understanding human psychology through babies’ laughter. Their research has shed light on various developmental aspects, including conditions such as autism and Down’s syndrome.

Undeterred by the scant research in this area, Addyman passionately pursues his investigations, often funding the studies himself. He envisions these studies as a vital stepping stone toward understanding human psychology at its core. Addyman’s commitment to this cause is evident in his book The Laughing Baby, where he discusses the pivotal role of laughter in human development.

He succinctly sums up his philosophy, saying: “If you are trying to understand the psychology of humans, it makes sense to start with babies. Adults are far too complex. They either tell you what you want to hear or try to second-guess you.” In contrast, babies’ responses are invariably genuine, offering unfiltered insights into human psychology.

The universality of laughter: A humanizing factor

Babies’ laughter serves as a reminder of our shared humanity, transcending boundaries of culture, language, and geography. Every chuckle, every gurgle of joy from a baby, presents an opportunity to better understand our fundamental human nature.

Through his pioneering research on understanding human psychology through babies’ laughter, Dr. Addyman reaffirms the universal language of laughter and its role in human bonding and communication. His work not only deepens our understanding of babies, but it also provides profound insights into the intricate workings of the human mind.

As we journey through life, this understanding holds the key to unlocking the secrets of our psychological development, from our first innocent peals of laughter to the complex emotional responses we display as adults.

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