Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The 'standup scientist' revealing the secret of laughter

October 15, 2013 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
Meet Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London studying laughter. The "standup scientist" uses comedy to share her findings. Meet Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London studying laughter. The "standup scientist" uses comedy to share her findings.
Standup scientist
Sound of silence
Take a seat
Brain scan
  • Meet Sophie Scott, the "standup scientist" uncovering what makes us laugh
  • Discovered brain reacts differently to real and posed laughter
  • Speaker at Ada Lovelace Day, female scientist believed to be first computer programmer
  • Laughter not confined to humans -- chimpanzees, orangutangs, and even rats laugh

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- I'm in a room built for laughter and I'm fighting the urge to faint. Or vomit. Or at least dab at the beads of sweat forming on my upper lip.

If you're not great with small spaces, then an anechoic chamber probably isn't an ideal place to conduct an interview. Barely large enough to fit two chairs, with every surface covered in foam wedges and a TV bolted to the wall, the sound-proof bunker has the unnerving appearance of an apocalyptic Big Brother Diary Room.

Scientist Sophie Scott.
Scientist Sophie Scott.

It's the type of place where nobody could hear you scream -- and that's exactly the point. This echo-free room is where University College London scientist Sophie Scott has been recording laughter, in an effort to find out what makes us giggle and why.

"I don't like coming in here, it makes my head feel thick, like I've got a load of blankets dropped on me," said the 46-year-old professor of cognitive neuroscience, as we sit down to talk about her work.

Read: Meet the powerhouse behind Britain's biggest arts center

"This is where we record a lot of our emotional stimuli. We try to make people laugh in here, which is something of a challenge. We've also made people cry in here, so that was a day in the park -- crying in an anechoic chamber, the perfect storm," says Scott before adding her own cheerful chuckle, her large cartoon moon earrings jangling in agreement.

Laugh out loud

How do you send someone into stitches, in such an uncomfortable environment? YouTube clips help -- that's where the TV comes in. But the best trick is being with friends. In fact, we're 30 times more likely to laugh when we're with other people, according to Scott.

From the family farm to the U.N.
Is 'giving back' in your work ethic?
Warren Buffett's advice to Melinda Gates

As part of their experiments, Scott and her team recorded two types of laughter in the anechoic chamber -- real, uncontrollable whooping, and posed, deliberate, chuckling.

They then played the recordings to over 1,000 people while scanning their brains with fMRI.

"When people heard the posed laughter, there was more activation in brain areas associated with 'mentalizing' tasks -- ie. trying to work out what someone else is thinking," said Scott.

"Real laughter was much less ambiguous than posed laughter -- if someone is really laughing hard, it's easy to understand what they are doing."

They also found men and women processed laughter in much the same way.

"We have a myth that women and men use communication very differently -- that men aren't emotional and women are somewhat too emotional," said Scott. "It's not the case."

Read: From supermodel to supermogul

Standup scientist

Scott is a woman of infectious merriment. Her conversation is sprinkled with warm chortles, and even the message alert on her phone is a cackle.

As a child growing up in Lancashire in the north west of England, she was surrounded by parents who were "big laughers," and recalls them singing silly songs to the point of hysterics.

Unsurprising then, that the mother-of-one calls herself a "standup scientist," performing with the university's Bright Club -- a group of researchers using comedy to deliver their message on stage

"It was one of the most terrifying things I've ever done, but I've completely got the bug for it now, because it's such an interesting way to approach your work," said Scott.

Read: Saudi Arabian comedian revealing all on stage

Ada Lovelace

This week Scott will again be taking to the stage to help mark Ada Lovelace Day, in honor of the 19th century female mathematician, often credited as the world's first computer programmer.

Scott will be one of many prominent female scientists, engineers, and technologists talking about their work at Imperial College London.

"It's still a case that on the whole, the stereotype of the scientist is the gray beard, white coat man in a laboratory -- and of course, that's not true," said Scott.

"One of the important things to remember about women in science is actually, there's loads of them. It's just that we lose them, we don't value them as much, we don't think they count in the same way."

It doesn't matter where you are in the world, laughter is a sound that people recognize
Sophie Scott

Indeed, Yale researchers have found potential employers still view young male scientists more favorably than their female counterparts.

Read: I'm a male feminist. No, seriously

Universal language

For Scott, laughter is more than displaying amusement -- it's a primal way of showing people that we like them and want them to like us.

"Laughter is the only positive emotion we found to be cross-culturally recognized. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, it's a sound that people recognize," she said.

"Interestingly enough, it's not constrained to humans. Chimpanzees laugh, orangutangs laugh, even rats laugh."

Scott pointed to studies done by U.S. scientist Jaak Panksepp, who found that rats made the same high-pitched "laughing" sound when they were playing, as when they were being tickled.

Such is the bonding power of laughter that it can even help make or break a relationship, as Scott explains: "Some of the things scientists are finding is couples who manage stressful situations with positive affect -- laughter -- are the people who stay together longer."

"Comedian Victor Borge said 'laughter is the shortest distance between two people.' I think what Borge was getting at was the intimacy of laughter. It's an expression of closeness."

Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1007 GMT (1807 HKT)
In 2006 she sold her business to Estée Lauder in a reported multi-million dollar deal, five years later she started a brand new company.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1014 GMT (1814 HKT)
Some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have come from women, though like so many inventors their names are lost in the pages of history.
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1202 GMT (2002 HKT)
Leading Women hosted a Twitter Chat celebrating girls in science with guests including race car drivers, software developers and coders.
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
There's a fine science to running a billion dollar company. Rosalind Brewer should know -- she used to study chemistry.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Join our twitter chat @CNNIwomen on October 9 at 5pm GMT/12pm EST and look for #CNNwomen #IDG14.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
STEM experts from Marissa Mayer to Weili Dai share their thoughts to celebrate International Day of the Girl.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT)
When it comes to buildings, they don't come much different than a mosque and a nightclub.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen -- or so the saying goes.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
These 12 fashion experts have millions of followers, but who is the most social woman in fashion?
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Mindy Grossman has been the driving force behind making the Home Shopping Network both hip and profitable, but she still makes time for herself.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1318 GMT (2118 HKT)
Nelly Ben Hayoun speaking at NASA Ames research center
Nelly Ben Hayoun is on a mission to convince the world to take threats such as asteroid strikes more seriously.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 0233 GMT (1033 HKT)
Shenan Chuang turned Ogilvy China into the world's third biggest ad agency, CNN's Kristie Lu Stout asks how she did it.