News You Can Use: Lighten Up! Humor Helps Kids Learn

By Dawn Van Osdell

A team of French scientists has reported in the journal Cognition and Emotion that laughter doesn’t just make us feel good. It also helps us learn. 

The researchers, led by Rana Esseily, who studies emotion, developmental psychology, and cognitive psychology at Paris West University Nanterre La Défense, studied a group of 18-month-olds—roughly the age when humans develop a sense of humor—to determine whether toddlers’ cognitive abilities improve when laughter is involved. They designed an experiment where each tot observed an adult using a tool to grab an out-of-reach toy. In one group, the adult simply played with the toy after retrieving it. In a second group, the adult threw the toy immediately on the floor, which made half the kids in that group laugh.

The researchers found that 94 percent of the tots who laughed at the antics of the adults were able to repeat the action themselves more successfully than those who didn’t laugh, as well as those in the “humorless” control group.

Why laughter seems to be linked to learning isn’t entirely clear, but Esseily and her team cite two possible explanations. The first relates to temperament. “In this case, it is not humor per se that may have facilitated learning, but [that] temperamentally ‘smiley’ babies were more likely to engage with the environment, and therefore to attempt and succeed at the task,” says Esseily. She suggests that “laughing babies” may have higher social skills or cognitive capacities, allowing them to interact more easily with others and making them more amenable to mimickery.

Esseily’s second explanation relates to brain chemistry. It is well known that positive emotions, such as laughter, can increase dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn has a positive effect on learning.

Though more research is needed to determine the extent of the relationship between laughter and learning, there’s ample reason to keep your kids giggling: it’s fun for all of you! Plus, they just might learn something from it.

Photo by Barry Lenard via Compfight