A new study from the UK shows that babies as young as four weeks old can understand and appreciate humor, which may help researchers better understand how a baby's brain develops.
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An image of a baby laughing.
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Have you ever heard a baby giggling in one of those super sweet, deep belly laughs and wondered what they were thinking? It's easy to believe that there is no way that a baby could appreciate the nuances of joke or the absurdity of playing peek-a-boo, and yet they appear to react with mirthful laughter anyway. Maybe it's because humor is a universal core part of the human experience. The mystery of why we laugh has perplexed humans for eons, and now researchers are beginning to look at how humor develops in a human as young as four weeks old.

Very little is understood about where and when humor originates during a person's development, which is what makes this latest study on humor and kids so exciting. We know that humor can help with stress, expressing complex thoughts, and even bonding with others, but how do we develop a sense of humor?

Researchers at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom created a parent survey called the Early Humor Survey that looked at 671 kids between 0 and 47 months old. They wanted to know how humor develops in very young children and what they found was astonishing. It turns out that there are more than 20 types of humor that seem to emerge on a developmental timeline as young as 0 months. These types of humor indicators included copying jokes, chasing and tickling, peek-a-boo style surprises, silly faces, misusing objects, and taboo topics, to name a few.

Researchers found that roughly half of the babies in the survey showed an appreciation for humor by 2 months of age, which is extraordinary when we consider how much is happening in a tiny person by 2 months old. Furthermore, by 11 months old, half of the babies in the survey began to experiment with making their own jokes. Not only did babies try to be creative, but they seemed to fixate on this newly acquired skill as they made repeated attempts at cracking jokes in three-hour increments.

Interestingly, babies under the age of 12 months appeared to be attracted to physical comedy more than verbal. So, peek-a-boo, funny faces, chasing and tickling, absurd use of common objects, etc., would elicit the most response. However, babies over the age of 12 months appeared to be showing signs of evolving humor. This age group seemed to be more participatory and geared toward teasing, toilet humor, startling someone, or making silly verbal noises like animal sounds.

Then, when babies moved into the toddler years, the jokes became even more evolved and they began to use language in interesting ways. A child might say, "a dog says 'moo,'" or something equally as ridiculous to garner laughs. But researchers also noted that this is a time when kids appear to show an interest in a mean streak, such as jokes that center on insulting others. And by the time toddlers reached the age of three, they began to play with language and incorporate puns, simple riddles, taboo words such as swearing, and develop more complex physical gags and verbal jokes.

"Our results highlight that humor is a complex, developing process in the first four years of life," Dr. Elena Hoicka, Associate Professor in Bristol's School of Education and the study's lead author, said in a press release. "Given its universality and importance in so many aspects of children's and adults' lives, it is important that we develop tools to determine how humor first develops so that we can further understand not only the emergence of humor itself but how humor may help young children function cognitively, socially, and in terms of mental health."

Humor holds power to help each of us cope with feelings big and small, for as the American master Mark Twain once said, "Genuine humor is replete with wisdom." When kids can develop and use humor to communicate their feelings, they are arming themselves with a powerful tool to help them understand the world.

As parents, we can look to the marvel of studies like this one to understand our children better and help them develop humor to enhance their lives and give them the best coping tools for every curveball the future may throw out at them.