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Laughter and the Brain: a St Edmund Hall Centre for the Creative Brain event

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

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Professor Sophie Scott, speaking at the Centre for the Creative Brain event
Professor Sophie Scott discusses brain activity in response to positive and negative sounds

Earlier this month, St Edmund Hall’s Centre for the Creative Brain hosted its final packed event of this academic year. Five very entertaining guest speakers joined us in the Doctorow Hall for the ‘Laughter and the Brain’ evening, presenting a diverse range of perspectives on the subject. The event, which was free but ticketed, sold out in advance.

Professor Sophie Scott (Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL) opened proceedings by explaining her interest in the neurobiology of speech perception and noting that laughter is the most universally recognised positive sound, whatever a person’s cultural background. She observed that we all laugh far more frequently than anyone imagines and explained how we use laughter socially, particularly with people we like. It was, in equal parts, fascinating and very funny as Professor Scott ranged from topics as diverse as tickling rats (which also laugh) to the differences between fake and real laughter.

Dr Brett Mills discusses his research project
Dr Brett Mills explains the 'Make me Laugh' project

Paul Mayhew-Archer, a renowned comedy script writer and producer, was the second, very humorous, speaker. He took a different but complementary approach – showing how he draws out the humour inherent even in a dark situation such as his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, as a coping strategy.

Dr Brett Mills, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at UEA, then gave an overview of his current research project Make Me Laugh (www.makemelaugh.org.uk) which involves working with writers, producers, directors, commissioners, and other personnel in the British television comedy industry to explore their working practices, and the factors that both encourage and limit their creativity.

Professor Gordon Claridge, Emeritus Professor of Abnormal Psychology at Oxford University, offered a more scientific analysis of the personality traits in comedians and the link between manic activity and depressive behaviour.

Finally, Dr Hisham Ziauddeen, a psychiatrist who also performs stand-up comedy in his free time, concluded the evening with a thought-provoking look at the practical applications of comedy, such as whether it could be used in the treatment room.

It was a fitting end to a superb inaugural year for the Centre for the Creative Brain, which held its first symposium on ‘Music and the Mind’ last November and has also organised termly events, including a talk by Dr David Dupret (St Edmund Hall Fellow by Special Election in Neuroscience) on ‘Memory and the Mind’. We look forward to more creative interdisciplinary events next year!