Simon Creasey

Why giggling in class is so contagious

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An outbreak of continuous laughter can derail a lesson, but does it also bring benefits that teachers may want to utilise, wonders Simon Creasey

Why giggling in class is so contagious

Often, it starts with something innocuous: the teacher accidentally drops an object on the floor or says something that is misconstrued as being rude. Or, in these times of remote learning, something amusing may pop up behind one of those present on their video feeds. One child starts quietly chuckling to themselves, then the laughter spreads like wildfire. Before you know it, everyone is laughing uncontrollably and the lesson is ruined because it takes ages to calm the children down and get them focused on the task in hand.

That’s right: the giggle fit has struck again.

Can you stop a giggle fit mid episode? Can you work out a way to prevent it before it even gets started? Is it even advisable to do either of those things? Let’s find out.

According to Erman Misirlisoy, a behavioural scientist and writer, laughter appears in two forms: one is more voluntary and the other is more spontaneous.

“Voluntary laughter is typically what we use in conversation and it helps to make an interaction more pleasant,” he says. “Much of the time, we don’t even realise we’re doing it, but it’s the most common type of laughter in our lives.

“Spontaneous laughter is the more uncontrollable laughter we use when we find something irresistibly hilarious. It’s not entirely clear what makes a joke funny and there seems to be a lot of variability between people in what they find funny.”

While the outcome of voluntary or spontaneous laughter is the same – someone laughs – the way our brain works during that episode is different depending on the type of laughter.

“Voluntary laughter is generally controlled by frontal and motor areas of the brain – areas that are typically involved in decision making and action control,” explains Misirlisoy. “In contrast, spontaneous laughter involves more activity in deeper brain structures that typically control automatic physiological processes like hormonal regulation.”

Whichever laughter is in play, if you’re close to it, you will soon be laughing, too, because it’s highly contagious.

“Because we use laughter as a social lubricant, it would actually appear very strange if we sat completely stone-faced while a friend laughed,” he says. “So laughter is incredibly contagious, even when we don’t know what somebody else is laughing at. In fact, it’s so contagious that we can infect ourselves with it. Trying not to laugh will inevitably fail because you’ll keep thinking about laughing. Ultimately, you end up in a positive feedback loop with an ever-intensifying urge to laugh.”

So, the giggle fit is no one’s fault, really – it’s an inevitable mix of psychology and biology. No one is trying to deliberately undermine your lesson; they are just a slave to the LOLs. And, perhaps surprisingly, these episodes can have a positive impact.

“Among many other benefits, laughing – giggling as well, I’m sure – releases endorphins, the ‘feelgood’ hormone, which have a calming and pleasurable effect on mind and body,” says author Pamela Dell, who wrote the book Why We Laugh: the science of giggles. “Psychologically, this can translate into the strengthening and maintenance of social bonds between humans.”

She adds that a giggle fit often arises in awkward situations – sombre occasions or when you are being told off – for good reason: it’s a way of coping with the tension.

“Science has found that inappropriate laughter is usually the brain’s way of providing a sort of ‘cooling off’ in stressful, tense or uncomfortable situations. Think sombre events like funerals; during a call for ‘a moment of silence’; someone telling you a sad tale, et cetera.”

When that pupil is laughing as you sanction them, they are probably not finding it funny; it’s more likely that they are acknowledging and reacting to the stress of the situation.

That they feel they can do this, or have giggle fits in general, is a sign that things are operating properly in your school on a social level. Misirlisoy argues that laughter “is a sign of healthy social function so we should generally see it as a good rather than bad thing”.

Too much giggling for too long means learning may be negatively affected, though, so is there a defence against the giggles?

“The trick is to find a way to stop the contagion in its tracks,” he says. “For example, a teacher could try to break a laughter loop with distractions. Saying ‘don’t laugh!’ will keep a child’s mind centred on laughter, but providing another attention-grabbing activity will draw a child’s mind away from laughter. In extreme cases, a classroom break may be the quickest way to get back on track – let the kids distract themselves or laugh themselves out without the pressure of immediately needing to stop laughing.”

Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and author, thinks the best way to stop the giggles would be “to ask the children to share what they’re giggling about, as it’s almost always private and taboo”.

But what if you are also part of the collective giggle fit? Dell says she would advise that teacher to turn their back on the class or even go out of the room for a few minutes to take a few deep breaths and calm the situation; the digital equivalent would be turning off your camera or muting.

“Leaving might also cause the student laugh riot to settle down, I think,” she adds. “The other thing to do, whether the teacher has caught the laughing bug or not, is to tell the kids to take a few deep breaths themselves, but do it in a light-hearted manner. Being stern and trying to ‘get control’ could seem even more hilarious to the class.

“Maybe the teacher could even start writing or drawing something on the board, which could catch the students’ attention and cause them to settle down. I’m thinking something like a drawing of the brain and pointing out parts that have to do with laughter. This would, of course, take some advance preparation – like having this info on hand just in case – but I think it could serve to make the students curious, wondering what’s up, and again redirecting their attention from their fit of laughter.”

Or you could, of course, just embrace it. You could let the giggles play out and giggle along, too. In these worrying times of Covid, a little laughter is needed more than ever before. Yes, you might lose some learning time, but you might gain a whole lot more.

Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 22 January 2021 issue under the headline “The science of the giggle fit”

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