Television Review

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The Independent Culture
LAUGHTER IS a universal language. Or, as one scientist put it in last night's gripping Horizon (BBC2), "Beyond a Joke", "We all speak ha-ha-ha." In fact, this is not quite true: some of us speak dialects such as hee-hee-hee or ho-ho-ho. But whichever variant we speak, the underlying rhythm of laughter is identical.

So are the things we laugh at: Robert Provine goes around recording laughter at parties, walking up to people in the park and asking them why they are laughing (they usually stop laughing as soon as he appears; you imagine he sometimes finds this line of work quite depressing). Most of the time jokes have nothing to do with it; we laugh at unfunny things - friends saying "Hey, how are you?" or "Gotta go now." This goes to show that laughter is a social mechanism.

Meanwhile, Professor Jaak Panksepp spends his days with rats - rather him than me, you think, but these are appealingly fluffy, piebald rats. Their laughter is pitched too high for human ears, but once scaled down with a bat detector, you get a definite titter. The fact that rats do it, too, suggests that laughter must have evolved a long way back in our mammalian lineage. Then again, conflicting evidence comes from investigations into the brain of Autumn Deaton: having wired her up to find out which parts of the brain were causing her epileptic fits, doctors discovered that by electrically stimulating her speech centres they could make her guffaw hysterically at a picture of a fork. The inference is that there is another, jokier kind of laughter, based in the brain's higher cognitive centres (although you shouldn't rule out the possibility that it is all in the timing).

The film tied this in with research into tickling to suggest that tickling, laughter and play are essential ways of learning to interact with other people. Furthermore, Prof Panksepp's research suggests that rats need to get a certain amount of playfulness out of their system - deprived of play during rat childhood, they become positively frolicsome when finally set loose among other rats, putting whoopee cushions on all the chairs and pinning up signs saying: "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps."

The programme then tried to apply the lessons learned to humans, and, specifically, to the epidemic of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder now sweeping American schools: the suggestion was that many, if not all, cases of ADHD are the result of over-emphasis on classroom activities - in brief, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. If this is so, then prescribing Ritalin, the current preferred practice, may be doing more harm and good; what these children need is to be played with.

The logic seemed plausible, but this sort of evolutionary psychology needs to be handled with care. That the history of our species places constraints on the way we act is undeniable; but it is a long jump from that truism to the idea, which has roots in metaphor rather than science, that instinct is a raging torrent which we dam up at our peril.

Before that, in Edge of Blue Heaven (BBC2), Benedict Allen was discovering the universal language of alcohol - no translator necessary to know that his Mongolian friends were telling him "Get that one down you, my son." This was just as well, since he needed a few stiff ones this week. Having travelled a thousand miles through Mongolia without seeing a vegetable, he and his guide Khurmit (pronounced like the frog) decided to light out for the big city and find a little action. This turned out to be a rather optimistic assessment of the pleasures in store in Ulgii. Having been refused lunch at their hotel, on the grounds that the staff were busy eating, Allen and Khurmit tried a restaurant, where they waited for the food to arrive for an hour before being told that chef had changed his mind.

While all this was going on, Allen's horses and camels, tethered a few miles outside the city, were attacked by biting flies, and three horses and a camel died, their bodies riddled with maggots. Allen's distress was evident, but the way the series is made makes it hard to sympathise. Allen carries his own camera, spending much of the time pointing it at himself while he mutters asides ("They're all watching me"); the impression you get, probably unfairly, is of almost total solipsism. I was surprised to notice that Edge of Blue Heaven is produced by the BBC's Community Programmes Unit.

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