When Nuar Alsadir went to clown school, she wasn't there for a career in clowning. The poet and psychoanalyst was researching laughter for a new book –- going out to comedy clubs and improv shows to really listen to the audience and hear when they laughed.
What she learned at clown school surprised her.
"The audience tended to laugh not when something was humorous, but when it was honest," she says.
We know that laughter is physiologically beneficial – it releases endorphins and increases blood flow. But Alsadir learned that it can also help connect to the unconscious and bring out our most authentic selves. She writes about this in her new book Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation.
Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning – though in radically different ways – create a path toward the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self, or, in philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's terms, "to become the one you are."
When Alsadir took the stage at clown school, she realized that people were most moved when she spoke about something that was meaningful to her.
"Counterintuitively, it's not what you say," she says. "It's the emotion that you access in yourself as you're delivering it that is going to reach other people."
The title of Alsadir's book comes from something she read in Chekhov's notebook: "The so-called pure childlike joy of life is animal joy."
For Alsadir, it is the highest joy. "It's when we're most embodied, and most inside of our true selves — our spontaneous selves."
In the book, the poet points to two kinds of laughter: Duchenne and non-Duchenne laughter, named after the nineteenth-century neurologist who studied the ways in which we manifest our emotions.
"Duchenne laughter is the full bodied outburst that overtakes you," Alsadir says. "The unconscious is suddenly released into the room like a wild animal."
It's when you don't necessarily know why you're laughing, but you can't stop. It can make your stomach cramp and tears run down your cheeks.
"The other kind of laughter, which is actually the most common form, is called non-Duchenne," she says. "And that kind of laughter is social laughter."
The poet says that 90% of laughter is this socially coded, non-Duchenne kind. We normally use it to communicate something to the world. Even if we do this subconsciously, Alsadir understands it to be less of an outburst and more of an intellectual tool used to control interactions.
"You're letting someone know that they're safe, or you're happy to see them," she says. "It can also be used to counteract a communication that's about to come."
She gives the example of laughter that accompanies the phrase "don't take this the wrong way" or "no offense" — adding that what comes after non-Duchenne laughter can often be uncomfortable or critical.
Alsadir is more interested in Duchenne laughter, because it brings out our spontaneous impulses – reviving us in the process. She writes in the book:
Laughter shakes us out of our deadness
"When you are in touch with your true self, you feel more alive, more present, embodied," she says. "And that feeling is one of the best feelings there is."
The poet hopes her new book will lead readers to that feeling.