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Sunday, April 20, 2008
BUT SERIOUSLY . . .
Belly-laughs boffin puts mirth to the test
By TOMOKO OTAKE
When people laugh, it is often their cheery sounds or the wrinkles around their eyes that mark out their mirth. Yoji Kimura believes, however, that the key to determining the nature of laughter lies in the diaphragm.
Kimura, 60, professor of sociology at Kansai University in Suita, Osaka, has dug deep into the mechanism of laughter, making it his academic specialty. Having overcome numerous derisive chuckles and cynical sniffs from colleagues and observers, he recently came up with a device that helps him "quantify" laughter.
The device, much like an electrocardiogram for imaging the heart, records muscle movements of the diaphragm by registering subtle electronic signals released from the skin when people laugh.
But why look at the diaphragm?
"Because I laughed 30 years ago," Kimura said with a straight face recently at his roomy office in Suita, which was cluttered with books on sociology, theology and psychology — even including such titles as "The World of John Coltrane" (the legendary American jazz-saxophonist) and "An Introduction to Ultraman Research."
Kimura — who sports a beard and an unorthodox, center-parted, shoulder-length hairstyle that curls softly around his ears — said his own experience of bursting into nonstop laughter one day 30 years ago is proof that genuine laughter involves vibration of the diaphragm. That life-changing bout of levity hit him and two friends, he recalled, when they were having a nabe (hot pot) at a mountain cabin, having picked wild mushrooms for their feast close by.
"I don't know what it was that triggered our laughter, whether it was our cigarette smoking or the mushrooms," he said. "But we all started laughing, and then found ourselves incapable of stopping for the next three hours."
Suddenly, he recalled, everything around them started "looking funny": the unshaded light bulb hanging from the ceiling of the cabin; the Moon in the sky outside; and just the sight of themselves laughing for no reason at all.
After a while, though, Kimura became alarmed by the situation and called a friend looking for help — but the friend hung up, thinking it was a joke.
Aching for a week
After that the trio's laughter became so hysterical that the incident left Kimura's diaphragm aching for a week. "That made me start pondering why people laugh," he declared deadpan.
He subsequently racked his brain for answers to this baffling question, until 10 years later he finally came up with a four-step theory: First, a schema [a mental image produced in response to a stimulus] in the brain gets distorted when people perceive a gap between two images reflecting perception and reality; the switch for channeling emotional energy into that schema comes off; the reality for such a schema gets lost; and the emotional energy overflows and gets discharged.
But what exactly is discharged?
"Some kind of hormone and neurotransmitter that gives 'meanings' to things," Kimura posited. "And as a result of the discharge, we experience 'joyous nothingness.' "
Sound too complicated — or just nutty? Well, don't laugh, because he has invented a foolproof way to measure levels of laughter. His weapon: A set of electromyograph and computer software that Kimura calls a "Laughogram," which picks up subtle muscle signals from people's diaphragms when they laugh. With the software, he analyzes the level and duration of laughter, which is then expressed in the form of "aH" (pronounced ahha) — a unit Kimura created.
The device works as a laugh detector, so that even when people appear to be laughing, the EMG printout is not activated if their laughter is faked. In such cases, the laughter would register as 0 aHs. On the other hand, if the Laughogram registers 5 aH per second, "it is interpreted as being close to a big laugh," he says.
Now that Kimura has quantified laughter to his satisfaction, he says he has moved on to detecting and categorizing different types of laughter, ranging from derision to cynicism to belly laughs and beyond.
However humorous it may seem, though, Kimura's invention is no laughing matter for 27,000-student Kansai University in the suburbs of Osaka, which has applied for a patent for the device, including details such as where exactly on subjects' bodies to attach the sensors. Kimura, who nowadays gets frequent interview requests from the media about his off-the-wall invention, will also present his study findings at the International Society for Humor Studies convention in Madrid in July.
In fact, the mechanism of laughter is turning into a popular academic subject both in Japan and worldwide, with recent scientific studies showing that laughter enhances health by enhancing the immune system and reducing the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. Kimura says his research will be helpful in establishing the "causal-relationship" between laughter and health enhancement — thus making people realize the value of laughter.
In addition, his work has even had funding from Yoshimoto Kogyo, Japan's foremost comedian-management agency.
"Some day, we will be able to say that people will be much better off healthwise watching comedy shows and laughing their heads off, rather than taking pills and grimacing in nursing homes," he said with a laugh that seemed to have been at a goodly 4 aH level, possibly.
Or was it a full-on 4.325 aH guffaw, Professor?
Prof. Kimura has organized an international symposium on the science of laughter and humor at Kansai University on May 10, featuring Rod A. Martin, a noted Canadian psychologist and author as a keynote speaker. For more information, call (06) 6368-1121.