Real-time magnetic resonance imaging reveals distinct vocal tract configurations during spontaneous and volitional laughter

Michel Belyk, Carolyn McGettigan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
46 Downloads (Pure)


A substantial body of acoustic and behavioural evidence points to the existence of two broad categories of laughter in humans: spontaneous laughter that is emotionally genuine and somewhat involuntary, and volitional laughter that is produced on demand. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that these are also physiologically distinct vocalizations, by measuring and comparing them using real-time magnetic resonance imaging (rtMRI) of the vocal tract. Following Ruch and Ekman (Ruch and Ekman 2001 In Emotions, qualia, and consciousness (ed. A Kaszniak), pp. 426–443), we further predicted that spontaneous laughter should be relatively less speech-like (i.e. less articulate) than volitional laughter. We collected rtMRI data from five adult human participants during spontaneous laughter, volitional laughter and spoken vowels. We report distinguishable vocal tract shapes during the vocalic portions of these three vocalization types, where volitional laughs were intermediate between spontaneous laughs and vowels. Inspection of local features within the vocal tract across the different vocalization types offers some additional support for Ruch and Ekman's predictions. We discuss our findings in light of a dual pathway hypothesis for the neural control of human volitional and spontaneous vocal behaviours, identifying tongue shape and velum lowering as potential biomarkers of spontaneous laughter to be investigated in future research. This article is part of the theme issue ‘Cracking the laugh code: laughter through the lens of biology, psychology and neuroscience’.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210511
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1863
Early online date21 Sept 2022
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2022


  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology


Dive into the research topics of 'Real-time magnetic resonance imaging reveals distinct vocal tract configurations during spontaneous and volitional laughter'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this