There is probably nothing more fun than making a baby or toddler laugh. And now there’s news that it could even help with learning – the toddler’s not the adult’s.
In the first study to look at the effects of humour on learning at such a young age, Rana Esseily and her colleagues began by showing 53 18-month-olds how to reach a toy duck with a cardboard rake (other toddlers who’d spontaneously used the rake as a reaching tool were excluded). Crucially, half the participating toddlers were given several non-humorous demonstrations of how to use the rake to reach and pull the duck nearer. In these straight demonstrations, the experimenter was smiley, but just played with the duck for a bit after getting hold of it. The other toddlers were given several humorous demonstrations. In this case, after getting hold of the duck, the experimenter suddenly threw it on the floor and smiled. Sixteen of the 37 toddlers in the jokey condition laughed at least once when shown the funny demonstrations.
Next, the researchers placed the rake near each toddler’s hand, to see if they would imitate the action and use the rake to reach the duck for themselves. Among the laughing toddlers, all but one (93.7 per cent) used the rake to reach the duck. In comparison, just 19 per cent of the non-laughing toddlers in the jokey condition used the rake, and just 25 per cent of the 16 toddlers who’d been given the straight (non-jokey) demonstrations.
“Our results suggest that laughing might be a stimulant of learning even during the second year of life,” the researchers concluded. However, they conceded that there are other possible interpretations of their findings. For example, perhaps infants who laugh at jokes are just more cognitively advanced and that’s why they showed superior learning (although if that were true, you’d also expect a similar range of ability in the control group, which wasn’t found). Or maybe it’s not laughter per se that aids toddlers’ learning, but any kind of positive emotion. “Further work is clearly now required to elucidate the question of the mechanisms underlying this effect of laughter on infants’ learning,” the researchers said.
Esseily, R., Rat-Fischer, L., Somogyi, E., O’Regan, K., & Fagard, J. (2015). Humour production may enhance observational learning of a new tool-use action in 18-month-old infants Cognition and Emotion, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/02699931.2015.1036840