Becca Balint: Breaking the ice — laughter and connection


The 20-something man, svelte and sinewy, stands in his underwear and turns to the camera to strike a few "macho" poses before leaping onto an ice-covered pond. The triumph of his plunge through the ice — and his fearless recovery as he emerges from the bone-numbing bath will be used in his heavy metal band's promotional video. His friends focus the camera and wait on tenterhooks as he readies himself. He leaps!

And then ... he fails to break the ice. He slides across the ice in his skivvies. Once it's clear that he's not hurt, the man and his mates cannot control themselves. The video camera swings wildly as the cameraman tries to catch his breath between spasms of laughter. The underwear — clad macho man scoots back across the ice — like a preschooler wriggling on a rug — between his own fits of guffaws.

I discovered this fabulous clip while researching neuroscientist Dr. Sophie Scott's work on laughter. Scott is a senior fellow at University College London and studies the neuroscience of speech and vocal behavior. In her TED Talk on why we laugh, referencing the work of Dr. Robert Provine of the University of Maryland, she explains that "you are 30 times more likely to laugh if you are with somebody else than if you're on your own."

We don't laugh the most when we watch comedy routines or hear jokes; we laugh the most and the hardest when communicating with our friends and family. Scott asserts, "You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you're part of the same group as them. You're laughing to show that you like them ... You're doing all that at the same time as talking to them, and the laughter is doing a lot of that emotional work for you." And it is enormously "behaviorally contagious." We "catch" laughter from others more often if we know them.

Have you ever watched clips of Britain's House of Commons? Some of the best ones are of sessions when the Prime Minister must come and face the grilling. Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron, and Gordon Brown alike — we see politicians fiercely disagreeing — hurling some stinging zingers — but the hilarity and irreverence allows them to struggle with really big issues without either side disengaging from the debate. This engagement is sorely lacking within our own Congress. And it shows in the abysmal results. Senator Dustin Degree (Republican from Franklin County) and I once duked it out on the floor of the Senate when it was a time to debate Same Day Voter Registration. I passionately supported the initiative, he was adamantly opposed. We both came prepared with facts, figures, details and broad context. He is a formidable opponent on any issue. He prepares carefully and understands the strategic maneuvers possible within the arcane Mason's Rules. My argument won the day, though perhaps it was not my floor debate but the numbers: Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans in the Senate.

But at a break in the action, we could still find common cause through humor. We came together and rapped the words of the 1979 classic tune, "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang.

We in the Senate tend towards "wonky" and impatient when faced with a legislative crockpot full of angst stew. We must remember that often laughter bridges the gap between people not argument. We face serious issues with real consequences for the lives of Vermonters; all votes and floor debates need to be weighed and considered most carefully. But when we lose our sense of humor, we forfeit an essential tool for effective collaboration.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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