Why you (and your kids) laugh at the worst possible time

I honestly thought my grandfather was going to kill me or my brother.

We’d been sitting in a tiny aluminum row boat for about two and a half hours. Way longer than most ten and eleven year old boys can, or should, have to handle. My grandfather – a passionate trout fisherman – finally latched on to what felt like a monster.

As he began battling like the Old Man in the Sea, the trout darted under the anchor line coming off the bow. My grandpa, sitting in the back, leaned way out to the side of the boat, and started sliding himself toward the bow to carefully keep the line out of harm’s way. As he did, he slammed his knee on the oarlock and doubled over in pain, pitching the boat violently to starboard. We grabbed the gunwales for dear life. However, he never let go of the rod, as he righted himself, tangling his leg up in my brother’s line that was still in the water, he started dragging Sean’s rod along with him.

Jaws was ripping out Gramps’ line at a furious pace, so he kept trying to shimmy forward, swearing like a sailor about his knee, kicking with his good leg to free himself of Sean’s line, and causing the net and it’s three foot handle to spoke up in between his legs as well adding to the tapestry.

The entire slapstick scene was enough to send us into fits of laughter which just poured gasoline on his rage-stoked fire. I still laugh thinking about it today, and I’m sure he’s either looking down (or possibly up) at me, getting pissed off at me now, for my on-going inopportune laughter.

I bet you have a story like that as well.

Someone you know and love got really hurt and you couldn’t help but guffaw. You busted a gut when some older relative nodded off or worse yet, ripped a pew-rattling fart in church. It’s the sense of inappropriateness that makes dark humor so funny to begin with. As neuroscientists point out our appraisal of a stimulus, or what we think of an event, determines if we classify something as harmless or not. If it’s harmless that appraisal is what makes you likely to laugh.

The interesting thing is that as inappropriate as it may be, psychologists don’t really know why we do it. Something very serious, even morbid can be the subject and you might respond by laughing.

Rebecca Camm from Vice reported: “Inappropriate laughter is a really interesting one,” says Steve Ellen, director of Melbourne’s Psychosocial Oncology Program. “We all do it, I’ve done it very many times. It can really be quite difficult. You can be talking about something very tense, and your body responds by laughing.”

Ellen thinks nervous laughter is a psychological response to anxiety and tension, that “our own body makes us start laughing to relieve the tension, even if we don’t really want to [and] we’d prefer to be serious.”

Jordan Raine, a PhD Researcher into “Human Non-verbal Vocalisations” at the University of Sussex, agrees that it could be the brain’s way of diffusing tension, or a defensive coping mechanism when you’re faced with something traumatic or distressing.

“[This] can sometimes occur as fits of nervous laughter in immediate reaction to some event, perhaps serving to protect ourselves against the true nature of what we’re witnessing.”

The bottom line is that almost everyone is susceptible to the poorly timed, inexplicable laughter. If it’s one of your kids (or grandkids) cut them some slack (or fishing line) and try to see the humor in the situation yourself. My grandfather getting even more wound around the axle by us laughing just brought up our laughter even more and triggered his fight response for no good reason. The moral of that one is not to take your 10 and 11 year old grandkids fishing for two hours. And in the end, he lost the fish anyway.

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