Babies Are Tiny Comedians

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Before babies can walk or even talk, they crack jokes, according to a new review of the literature in Current Biology by Vasudevi Reddy of the University of Portsmouth and Gina Mireault of Johnson State College. It’s a fairly new way of thinking about infant humor, they write, and one that may help uncover important new findings about babies’ cognitive abilities. 

Many scientists once believed that babies’ senses of humor were mostly reactive — that is, they were responding to the funny or surprising things around them. Making a joke, on the other hand, is complicated stuff, requiring the joke-teller to place him- or herself in the audience’s shoes. "The theoretical predictions of the time about humor were that humor proper should not be possible until — at the earliest — the middle of the second year," said Reddy in an email to Science of Us, "and the theoretical predictions about foiling others’ intentions or expectations were that such an ability should not be possible for at least another two years, when understanding about others’ intentions and expectations develops."

So, when infants act goofy in order to make their parents or caretakers laugh, they’re really demonstrating some pretty complex cognitive skills — the ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes, for one. Both Reddy and Mireault were inspired to investigate infant humor after observing their own children’s goofy antics, as Mireault explained in an email:

At 7 months, my son liked to make what we called “dolphin sounds,” meaning ridiculously high-pitched squeaks and squeals at which we (including him!) would all laugh. At 9 months he used to pull on the (very patient and tolerant!) dog’s face while laughingly trying to avoid being licked. He was, it appears, teasing the dog. My daughter, at 17 months, cracked her first verbal joke. She pointed at me and said “Dada” and laughed hysterically.  Then she pointed to her dad and said “Mama”! This is one of the least recognized joys of parenting: being “in” on the joke. 

Reddy and Mireault write that when babies are about 9 months old, they’re able to “tease” their parents or others, which is essentially a kind of joke. The authors use the example of a 9-month-old who offers an object to her father, then draws her hand away as her father reaches for it. And this is noteworthy, they write, because “teasing and clowning are important markers of the awareness of other minds … Infant teasing not only reveals what infants know about others’ embodied intentions and expectations, but reveals a powerful process of exploration by the infant of the nature and boundaries of mind — others’ as well as their own.” 

The pair also sent Science of Us a video they encountered in their research, which shows a 4-month-old first mimicking, and then, eventually, initiating blowing raspberries in order to make his mom laugh. “He is so young and has very little motor control,” Mireault said. “Still, he uses what he has to joke in this way.”