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Laugh and the World Understands

Certain emotional expressions, like amusement, are universal, study finds

SUNDAY, Jan. 31, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Though basic emotions such as amusement, anger, fear and sadness are not always expressed the same way in every culture, some are universally recognizable, a new study contends.

Specifically, the researchers investigated whether the sounds associated with basic emotions are the same in different cultures. To do this, people in England and in remote settlements in northern Namibia were told a story based on a particular emotion, which was followed by two different types of emotion-related sounds, such as laughter or crying. The British group heard sounds from Namibia, and vice versa. The participants were asked to identify which of the two sounds reflected the emotion of the story.

"People from both groups seemed to find the basic emotions -- anger, fear, disgust, amusement, sadness and surprise -- the most easily recognizable," research leader Sophie Scott, of University College London, said in a news release from the Wellcome Trust, which co-funded the study. "This suggests that these emotions -- and their vocalizations -- are similar across all human cultures."

Laughter was particularly well-recognized by listeners in both groups, who agreed that laughter represented amusement, exemplified by the feeling of being tickled, according to the study, published online Jan. 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Tickling makes everyone laugh -- and not just [in] humans," study co-author Disa Sauter, of University College London, said in the news release. "We see this happen in other primates, such as chimpanzees, as well as other mammals. This suggests that laughter has deep evolutionary roots, possibly originating as part of playful communication between young infants and mothers."

The finding "supports the idea that laughter is universally associated with being tickled and reflects the feeling of enjoyment of physical play," Sauter added.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians explains how emotions can affect health.

SOURCE: Wellcome Trust, news release, Jan. 25, 2010
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