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INTERVIEW: Discover the secrets of a good giggle with Professor Sophie Scott, the Neuroscientist behind 'The Science of Laughter' at Bloomsbury Theatre

Neuroscientist Sophie Scott of University College London aims to demonstrate how live performance can animate cutting edge research by staging a night exploring why we laugh, with the help of award-winning standup comedians Tim Key, Stuart Goldsmith, and Maawan Rizwan.

Commissioned by UCL Culture, The Science of Laughter is part of a PERFORMANCE LAB, a string of events that explore how research can inspire creativity in the arts - and how live performance can animate cutting-edge research.

Professor Scott tells Run Riot more about the ideas behind the event…

In what way has science informed this event beyond the fact that you will measure people's breathing patterns?

We’ll be looking at breathing and laughter. Really, laughter is more a different way of breathing rather than a different way of speaking – when you start laughing, you get very large contractions in the chest cavity, squeezing air in and out. It’s a very basic way of making a sound. What I am effectively trying to do is look at how people laugh, relative to what the comedians do, and also relative to the people around them. People start laughing around the same time, and my suspicion is that they do that because the comedian has coordinated it.

What scientific exercises will be carried out?

We will do other physiological measurements, such as the galvanic skin response: the sweatiness of your skin changes the more excited you are. And if we get a chance to do this safely, we’ll look at how laughter affects people’s ability to feel pain. When you laugh, you get an increased uptake of the body’s natural endorphins – and that increases your ability to tolerate pain. If I can measure pain thresholds safely, I will.

Is it a radical idea to think that art can inspire scientific research? Shouldn't science be carried out in an objective vacuum away from the wonky and disorganised world of the arts?

My personal experience is that every artist I have collaborated with has taught me something about topics I already thought I knew well. They have helped me ask entirely new questions. For example, I did a study with impressionist Duncan Wisbey looking at how identity is encoded in the voice. Working with Duncan made me realise that while I thought I worked with speech, I’ve actually always worked with voices.

How can research inspire creativity in the arts? Can you give me some famous examples of how science has informed the arts?

A classic example would be how Van Gogh was influenced by scientific theories of colour. While it’s possible that my scientific impact on the arts may not have quite the same impact, artists have always drawn inspiration from their surroundings and culture. Science can be an important part of that.

Can you give me any famous examples of how an artistic creation informed a scientific line of investigation?

A Roman glass vase, the Lycurgus Cup, looks like one colour when light passes through it and another colour when light reflects off it is a lovely example. It took scientists quite a long time to work out that the romans had used a kind of nanotechnology to achieve this.

From a health perspective, why is laughter important? They say that "laughter is the best medicine" - is this actually true? Is it genuinely good for our health?

I think it might be the other way around – we laugh most when we are happy, relaxed and with other people. Laughter is a sign that we are in a situation that is good for us. We are 30 times more likely to laugh when with other people than alone.

From an evolutionary perspective, why is laughter important? What is the evolutionary purpose, or adaptive value, in laughter?

Laughter, wherever we find it, is an “invitation to play”. And play has an incredibly important role for mammals – in development and in social situations.

How are the comedians influenced by the audience’s laughter?

One study looked at personality differences between comedians and non-comedians: there’s a myth that comedians are more depressed than the general population, but we’ve found that’s actually not true. But comedians do have a reduced need for social approval – likely because they get that endorphin rush on stage, so they don’t feel the need to seek it in everyday circumstances. I’m interested in that interaction – what the comedians get out of making an audience laugh, as well as what the audience gets out of laughing.

What else do you hope the audience gets out of the event?

I hope they laugh a lot, and learn a little about why they did!

What else do you hope the comedians get out of the event?

I hope that they find the science of laughter interesting and maybe even of value in thinking about their work.

Has it been a long journey to get an event like this made? When did you first think about doing something like this?

I have wanted to do something like this since 2012, when we did tiny versions at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. I have always done it as a ‘science’ event, but I really wanted to get my hands on a comedy crowd!

And now she finally is. The Science of Laughter takes place May 2 at the Bloomsbury Theatre at 7:30.

The Science of Laughter at the Bloomsbury Theatre
Thursday 2 May
| 19:30
Price: £10
Info and Tickets: thebloomsbury.com