British neuroscientist to talk about science of laughter at URI, Oct. 27, for Honors Colloquium

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KINGSTON, R.I., Oct. 13, 2015 – Sophie Scott was 6 years old when she first heard her parents laugh – not soft chuckles, but hearty “lying-on-the-floor” belly laughs that left them breathless.

“I didn’t know what they were laughing at,” says Scott. “But I wanted in. I wanted to be part of that.”

Scott got her wish. The little girl from Blackburn, England grew up to become a neuroscientist and one of the world’s leading researchers on laughter. She also makes people laugh as – no joke – a standup comedian.

Scott will bring her wit and wisdom to the University of Rhode Island Oct. 27 for the annual Honors Colloquium, which focuses this year on the “Power of Humor.” Her talk about the science of laughter will start at 7 p.m. in Edwards Hall on URI’s main campus in Kingston.

Those unable to attend the lecture can watch it live online at URI Live!

Scott is deputy director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London. She looks at how our brains process speech and voices – and the neuroscience of laughter. She studies why we laugh, the difference between real and fake laughter, the role of laughter in treating depression and more.

For years, researchers have focused on negative feelings, like sadness, fear and anxiety. How people process positive emotions is just as important – and interesting. Laughter is also a common bond between cultures.

Humans are not the only ones who laugh, Scott says. Studies have revealed that chimpanzees laugh – and rats too. Researchers tickled rats and detected a sound that they concluded was laughter.

Scott has also found that laughter is contagious. People are more likely to laugh when they’re with another person. When you hear someone laughing “the brain wants to join in,” Scott says.

Standup comedy also inspires Scott. At first, she was terrified to get on stage and crack jokes, but she quickly discovered that she loved it. The stress of performing, she says, is followed by “the most wonderful rush of relief and delight.”

URI recently chatted with Scott about her talk, research and beginnings as a funny person:

What do you plan to talk about at URI?

I’ll be talking about the ways that we use laughter, and the ways our brains process laughter.

You’re a scientist. Why do you like being in front of a large audience cracking jokes? Aren’t you terrified?

It is terrifying, but it’s also absolutely delightful if – IF – people laugh. It’s an incredible delight.

Fake laughter is so contrived, but we all do it. Why?

It’s an extremely important social cue – most of the time when we laugh it’s a bit fake, or controlled. But even such posed laughter is a very useful way of managing interactions with other people.

What happens to our brains when we enjoy deep, belly laughs?

Good question! We don’t really know yet, as it’s a very difficult behavior to look at. There have been differences shown in the hypothalamus associated with real versus posed laughter, which might be an important direction.

Does laughter makes us healthier?

I think laughter is critical to many aspects of social and emotional health, and it’s interesting to know how the perception and production of laughter can be affected by things that change our mental health.

Do babies who laugh grow up to be adults who laugh? If so, what can parents do to make their infants smile?

The short answer is we don’t really know, but we do know that if baby rats are tickled a lot, they laugh more when they are adults. Babies laugh during interactions (like tickling or play) so that’s a good place to start!

Final question: Do rats really giggle?

They make a very specific chirping sound when they are playing with each other, and when they are tickled or when they anticipate being tickled. So it doesn’t sound much like laughter to humans, but you find it in the same kinds of behaviors.

The major sponsor of this year’s Honors Colloquium is the URI Honors Program.

Other URI sponsors are Office of the President; Office of the Provost; The Mark and Donna Ross Honors Colloquium Humanities Endowment; The Thomas Silvia and Shannon Chandley Honors Colloquium Endowment; College of Arts and Sciences; College of Pharmacy; The Harrington School of Communication and Media; John Hazen White, Sr. Center for Ethics and Public Service; Gender and Women Studies Program; Theatre Department; Talent Development Program; College of Engineering; College of the Environment and Life Sciences; College of Human Science and Services; College of Business Administration; College of Nursing; Division of Student Affairs; Department of Marketing and Communications; Department of Publications and Creative Service; Instructional Technology and Media Services; ASF College of Continuing Education, URI Providence; and URI Family Weekend 2015.

This year’s organizers of the colloquium are Rachel DiCioccio, professor of communication studies, and Brian Quilliam, associate dean and professor of pharmacy. For more information on colloquium events contact Deborah Gardiner at 401-874-2381 or

For information about ways to support the Honors Colloquium, contact Lynne Derbyshire, URI professor of communication studies and Honors Program director, at 401-874-4732. If you have a disability and need an accommodation, please call 401-874-2303 at least three business days in advance.

For TTY assistance, please call the R.I. Relay Service at 800-745-5555.

For more details about the events, visit Honors Colloquium.

Pictured above: Sophie Scott, deputy director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London. Photo courtesy of Sophie Scott.