The dead hamster laugh


[PLEASE READ THIS NOTE BEFORE READING FURTHER: Some Internet trolls have, for a long time now, been linking to this page in my site (rather than the front page) in a passive-aggressive manner in order to imply that I am some kind of monster who takes pleasure in others’ misfortune. If you have followed such links to this site, this note is, especially, for you. The reality is that I take less pleasure in others’ misfortune than the average person seems to. This page is not about how I am happy when awful events happen (because, I’m not). It is about the fact that I, like many people of many kinds of atypical neurology, have great difficulty controlling my natural facial expressions, either to add expressions that are not automatic or to remove expressions that are automatic. And that, also like many people of many kinds of atypical neurology (and even many of typical neurology who are simply able to suppress it better), I automatically smile and laugh not only in situations where I am happy or find something funny, but also in situations where I am uncomfortable, terrified, disgusted, submissive, nervous, and grieving. If I were that kind of monster, I would not even feel discomfort, terror, etc. in the situations I am describing, nor would I advertise my problem with “inappropriate” smiling on the Internet. Additionally, I do also (sometimes) smile or laugh when I am happy or find something funny. Those are just not the only situations I smile or laugh in, and this post is not about situations where I am happy. You will see, if you read the comments section, that I am far from alone among autistic people or other people who are not standardly wired, and that in some cultures it is even often normal to smile in unpleasant situations. (It is even portrayed by one woman in the film Mozart and the Whale about a group of autistic people, when she laughs uncontrollably when afraid of hearing about rape and lesbian sexuality, and later smiles when saying she is sad that someone has cancer.) I originally thought of writing this post when recalling a conversation with the father of an autistic boy who often smiled when he was upset, and was often misunderstood in the same way I have been.]

I was discussing the purpose of laughter with a friend last night. We were talking about how most of the things human beings laugh about, we’re really uncomfortable with.

I started talking about something I rarely discuss because it’s been used to make me sound like a monster before: I laugh, or smile, uncontrollably (not that I have great facial control to start with), when horrified or disgusted by something.

I know that this just puts me at the extreme end of an utterly standard primate behavior pattern: The fear grin. My brother calls it the “dead hamster laugh” because I did it when my hamster died. However, it’s often seen in a very pathological or even monstrous light, and so I don’t often talk about it.

I suspect, from the point of view of institution staff, it is highly unnerving to have a patient who never smiles except when hitting you, and who also smiles very wide when being screamed at or discovered doing something that they know will get them in trouble. I can even imagine the thoughts that were going through their heads: “This is someone who is manipulative, sadistic, enjoys hurting people, and likes getting into trouble. And when she smiles as we come into the room and see that she’s pulled herself out of restraints again, it’s a mischievous smile.”

I know they thought some of that, in fact, because they said it outright. The fact that I was smiling at certain times got under their skin in ways that other inmates didn’t. I made them very uncomfortable.  I even wonder at times if it didn’t contribute to their singling me out for especially bad treatment up to and including their attempt to kill me.
It doesn’t help that so-called inappropriate laughter is considered a sign of any number of pathological mental conditions, despite the fact that the “inappropriateness” is actually fairly standard for a large minority of the human population. My friend was commenting that if an otherwise “normal” widow stared laughing at her husband’s funeral, people would consider it shock or hysterical laughter. When most people laugh when a little afraid, it’s called nervous laughter. But when someone already judged to be abnormal laughs like this, it’s automatically pathological or else a sign that we’re some kind of monster who is actually taking sick pleasure in all these horrific events.

I smile when I have done something very wrong, and know it, and am horrified by what I have done.

I am likely to smile when I know someone is dying nearby.

I smile during all kinds of emergencies when someone has collapsed or is bleeding a lot.

I smile when people close to me die, including animals.

I smile during natural disasters, wars, genocides, and terrorist attacks.

I smile while watching people physically attack each other.

I smile while thinking about bad things about people.

What’s worse, this kind of smiling is longer-lasting and harder to control than the kind of smiling that occurs across my face fleetingly while I’m amused by something or having a good time. My mouth gets stuck, painfully so, smiling, or laughing, and I can’t do a thing to stop it. My control of mouth position is limited to begin with, but this totally paralyzes it in the worst possible position for the circumstances.

The reason I will never play the tape of my interview with Laura Tisoncik on institutions for anyone who doesn’t already know me well, is because it contains me laughing throughout the entire interview, both while I’m typing and while Laura is talking, nonstop, and laughing the most in response to some of the worst descriptions.

But what people don’t realize, is that I’m not happy, and I don’t find any of these things remotely funny. While I am sitting there smiling or laughing, my actual feelings are intense disgust or horror. There is no pleasure here, and it would be really nice if people realized that this doesn’t make someone a monster. It’s actually a very basic human (and primate in general) reaction that some people take further than others.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

26 responses »

  1. I think I read that in some Asian cultures, laughter was more likely to mean embarrassment than actual amusement. So it’s definitely relative.

    A big problem of communication between humans is the (also natural?) idea that when someone else says the same thing (or does the same thing) as we say/do, they mean the same thing by it. Whole conversations can be had with both persons using the same words but meaning something entirely different, so also that can happen with body language.

    We can learn that to smile widely at a dog can be seen as a threat, becos it’s like bearing the teeth. We can learn that to close your eyes slowly toward a cat, is a sign of trust and affection. We can learn that there are some cultures where you don’t make certain getsures because it means something rude to them and something good or neutral to us. BUT when it comes to someone who is the same species as us and looks like us and comes (supposedly) from the same culture as us, then the feeling is that the body language should be the same.

    So I guess people have become open to the idea that one can have the same cultural background but not the same neurological background (if I can call it that), and that this can make an even bigger difference.
    And maybe we could learn, when someone seems to react “inappropriately”, to ask them “what do you mean by it, when you do that?” I suppose if we always asked instead of assuming, that could clear up a lot of confusions. (?)

  2. I have a slightly less extreme problem with fear grinning. I do it when I or someone else has been injured. It looks pretty mean to laugh when someone hits their head and is seeing stars. IN my case, I’m both afraid and find it funny. Most things in life that are painful and comical at the same time. I don’t see what’s wrong if you laugh at your own fear/pain then laugh at someone else’s.
    There was the story several years ago where the junior high class was at the theatre watching Schindler’s List. The kids were laughing at certain parts and they (the whole class) got kicked out. They had adult chaperones and it was said that they weren’t laughing out of callousness, but nervousness.

  3. My son also burst into almost hysterical laughter when my daughter’s pet hamster passed on a couple of years ago. But the reason I think he started laughing was because my daughter was crying and making these weird noises so he found her behavior odd and unusual.

    I also have done things like start laughing in stressful situations – but because I often find the behavior of people around me to be bizarre or the contect of the situation to be funny because of it’s typicalness. One time I was with someone and they wanted to go out to eat and I didn’t want to go because they had a really bad temper that was being fueled by something else at the time. I KNEW that if we went out (in public) it was almost like I could set a timer before the first encounter with another person would set them off. He insisted we go and we did not even get into the parking lot before he started screaming at this guy at a two way stop for not “following direction”. I started laughing and couldn’t stop and then he thought I was making fun of him and even started threatening me with physical abuse but that just made me laugh even more. It was kind of scary because I knew he was getting totally out of control and I was laughing so hard he was really getting enraged.

    So, I can kind of understand this and tried to explain it to another mom who felt like her young son was being “cruel” for laughing at her when she cried. I told her to look at the situation from his perspective and not to take it personally but I don’t think it made any sense to her.

  4. Yeah, I am also definitely one for some kinds of dark humor. (And that gets me in trouble too.)

    But, the situations I’m talking about are different from that. I don’t laugh or smile because anything’s funny, nor find anything funny in them, I just do so anyway. Like, I didn’t see anything amusing at watching my hamster bleed through her nose or feel cold to the touch or convulse or anything, but all of those things were what was making me laugh.

    In fact, I was so terrified that I couldn’t even hold her while she died.

  5. I have this in a milder form. When I was a child, anytime I thought I might get into trouble I would generally start laughing. The one time my friends and I got sent to the principal’s office, they were both crying, and they must have thought I was insane because I was lauging like it was the funniest thing that had ever happened. But, in fact, I was very frightened. When you mentioned your hamster dying, I remember that I have also had the smile response when some of my animals have been close to death. It is completely uncontrollable, and I guess it’s lucky for me that I’ve not been in many public situations where this has happened. My son seems to be lauging at nothing on occasion, but I’m not sure if this comes from the same place or is related more to something going on internally that I’m not privy to.

  6. Oh I am definatly a laugh at a funeral kind of person. I don’t think any of us really know why we laugh, it is an instinctive reaction, that has happened before you know to stop it. Any kind of explanation afterwards is always a gloss, a construction to explain the meaningless.

    If I had to try and explain it I would say it is laughing at the absurd because the world is absurd, especially funerals, so pompous and set up what can you do but laugh at everyone pretending to be sad.

    One can it seems find things simultaneosly horrific and funny, like the time I drilled a hole in my thumb.

  7. I remember once being badly shocked by what looked to me like inappropriate laughter. I was in the Philippines, attending a presentation by a battered woman about her experiences. There was an interpreter present, to translate from the woman’s native dialect into English.

    During the interview, as the story got worse, the interpreter kept grinning at strange moments. She’d recount the woman’s experience of being brutally beaten, and smile. At one point, when the woman described a beating that left her hospitalized, the interpreter started giggling.

    After the presentation, all the Americans in attendence started complaining about the interpreter’s ‘insensitivity’ in laughing at that woman’s suffering. A fortuitously forthright Filipino came up to a group of us and said that the interpreter wasn’t being insensitive at all. It was perfectly normal for people to smile and laugh while discussing upsetting topics, and to the Filipinos present, it was reassuring. Smiling and laughing like that sent a distinct message, that this was okay to talk about. By smiling, the interpreter sent a message that the woman’s story wasn’t too painful to hear. And very likely, if the woman had been confronted by a normal American reaction, mirroring her sorrow, looking serious and intense, she would have been too frightend to speak.

    I since learned that it’s a bit more complicated than that, and the social rules in the Philippines for when you smile at a painful topic, and when you look sad are extremely situational and nuanced. But the most important lesson was that something I’d always assumed was part of human nature, was in fact, extremely culture-specific. Only laughing in amusment or joy is the custom of a group of people from a particular time and place, raised a particular way, with a particular type of brain circutry. If anything, it’s probably more likely that us NTs act like that because we’re more susceptible to cultural influence.

  8. ive known a few people (nt) who couldnt help but laugh at funerals and it would make them hesitant to go because they knew they would start laughing. and youre right, someone who is diagnosed with a condition would be thought of in a different light when doing this than someone who is NT. but i think that it is something that you should proclaim to people openly and without shame, you have an uncontrollable laugh or smile that should not be seen as you finding humor in what is being said or what you are seeing. I think people would be more understanding if they knew upfront that they should not read your laughter in the same way as they usually do. thanks for sharing! phil

  9. I get the impression that neurotypical humans are the ones who are odd along the lines of grinning and laughing when they are happy and not when they are upset. Most animals are upset and trying to seem threatening when they open their mouths and make loud noises.

  10. I smile & laugh when I’m really anxious. When I was in school I was useless at Maths (still am) and had a really awful teacher who used to call on me to do a maths (geometry was my absolute worst)on the blackboard I used to be in absolute convulsions of what looked like mirth but actually wasn’t

  11. I know people with schizophrenic diagnosis as well as many autistics have uncontrollable laughs. One thing that struck me about Joel was some of that. Strangely it caught me off guard but when I ‘processed’ it, I was pleasantly surprised others did it. I supressed it the whole time though although it’s something I did a lot “overboard” ie: I laughed so loud when I was with the dolphins that they asked me spouse if I were a patient and needed medicine.

    It can be any event but it *was* often inappropriate. It could be too much for something only mildly happy, it could be wide smiling in the middle of a very serious sermon so that the person actually calls out and says “do we know each other?” one time to perhaps get me to stop. I realized only after some deep thought what he was “hinting” at. I have also smiled “mischievously” when I was younger stimming with a squeak toy. They would think I was “downright evil”.

    BTW, some parts of me are very sad because this is also something I heard about the boy Marcus who recently passed away. I need to check the “list” that is being maintained I think. His passing is particularly painful for me to think about….in many parts because of this and what they did. I’m so very unhappy with the state of the world right now. It seems to be getting worse and worse with regards to us. And my laughter at this point can be a “laughter of desperation”. It can actually mean “crying”.

  12. Well the “dead hamster laugh” (I reckon I am going to call it that from now on unless Amanda wants me to pay royalties) had another outing only this evening.

    I went to a local labour party ward meeting tonight, and the Council candidate announced that people in my ward die ten years younger on average than people in more affluent wards. What did I do? I laughed.

  13. Lord Tennyson or whoever you fancy yourself to be, I am warning you.

    This is the problem we face with wrongful dx’s of Sz that innapropriate laughter is counted as yet another symptom. As Amanda was saying to begin with what is probably a reaction in virtually all of the human species but socially self suppressed in NT’s (though not always) is pathologised when it comes to people who are “obviosly not normal”

  14. What’s more paradoxical, in a sense, is not just that you smile and laugh at situations deemed inappropriate for smiling and laughter. It’s that you, Amanda, appear to have particularly strong reactions like fear – more so than “average” people – to the perceived suffering of others. It seems to me that, as evidenced by your “inappropriate” – and therefore not as controlled – responses, not only are you *not* insensitive to those situations – you’re actually more sincerely sensitive. Because what’s perceived as the culturally appropriate reaction to suffering – for example, forcing one’s face to appear sad – is not necessarily the natural reaction; it’s merely the “polite” reaction.

    As for me, since we’re sharing: Though I don’t like to see suffering in any living thing, and am probably what many would call overly sensitive to the suffering of animals in particular (I can’t watch Fear Factor because I feel bad for the snakes and cockroaches and tarantulas . . . and I anthropomorphize like hell), I’d have no problem picking up a dying/dead hamster, and have always been extraordinarily bold in touching anything/anybody that was suffering or dead. I don’t know if that makes me more or less kind and caring than the average person, but I think that touching who I perceive is suffering is a compulsion on my part to comfort, and touching dead bodies is the product of fascination/wonder/admiration. But it’s often perceived as sadistic – like I enjoy being witness to suffering and death. And that, of course, is bothersome, since I really do fancy myself a compassionate person.

    But Amanda, you talk about how you couldn’t hold your hamster because watching her suffer and die frightened you. And you talk about reacting strongly to grander disasters (genocide, war, terrorist attacks) in a way that, to me, seems *more* sensitive, and perhaps even more genuine, than the average reaction – the average reaction being polite and, frankly, forced, expressions of mild, aloof sadness. So in that sense it’s probably doubly frustrating that people perceive you as insensitive or lacking compassion. But because your responses are uncontrolled, they’re more likely purer responses than the distilled sad faces we’ve been taught to put on.

  15. I find a laugh a lot in fear/anxiety situations, which is more-or-less normal reaction, but apparently leaves people with the idea that I’m a far cheerier person than I am. I suppose it doesn’t help that all situations with unfamiliar people are fear/anxiety situations for me.

    *sigh* Most NT people seem to be unable to override their social assumptions, or seem to be able to do so only with a great deal of difficulty. Why is this the better state?

  16. Evonne:

    I have strong reactions to seeing animals hurt, but if the animal is a cat, my reaction is so strong and so primal that I’d hate to be in the way of it. There was a group of kids at one group home who figured this out for some reason and pretended to have killed the cat just to see me totally lose it. (They even burned some of their own hair or something to simulate the smell of burned fur.)

    I think I could hold a dying hamster now, but when I was younger, no way in hell could I do something like that. I would not even go near an orange washcloth (which is what she died wrapped in) for years, I think I would have still done that except the washcloths eventually got replaced.

    I think I’m better about things like that now. At least, when I worked at Wildlife Rescue, I handled sick, injured, dying, and dead birds all the time.

    When my neon tetras all got ick and died (they actually came, from the petstore, with ick) I was able to force myself to dispose of the bodies, but I was horrified watching them die. I did watch them die though. And when my betta fish starved himself to death… I couldn’t go near the spot where he’d been for months without freaking out.

    Come to think of it, the betta fish died during a time in my life that was very stressful (I was forced out of the building and very briefly onto the street at the same time, and actually wonder if the concrete dust that forced me out of the building was also making him sick), and I bet under stress I’m less able to control my reactions.

    I think when my cat and dog die I will be able to hold them though, if they want to be held at the time. I don’t look forward to it, at all, though.

    Certainly suffering (anyone’s) has a fairly intense effect on me though. I’ve always been considered “overly sensitive” because of that. (Which might come as news to people who think I’m a heartless bitch, but there you are.)

  17. I laugh both in situations where I’m embarassed in certain ways and in situations when someone is clearly trying to play power games with me (i.e. mess with my head in such a way that I’m supposed to break down crying in utter remorse and shame, or various other things to that effect).

    In both of these scenarios, the actual emotion I’m feeling when laughing is often something much closer to anger– sometimes very intense anger. I’ve had teachers who thought I laughed in an angry and defiant way, although they thought I was doing it just to piss them off. Actually, if I had any conscious motivation for the laughter, it was along the lines of “look, I’m not afraid.” (Which is more what it’s supposed to convey among animals, isn’t it?) The kind of laughter that comes out of me in those situations doesn’t sound a thing like the way I laugh when I actually think something is funny; according to some people who’ve heard it, it sounds like a rather harsh snort or a nervous “heh.”

    …although, admittedly, nor am I totally in agreement with the idea that laughter in specific situations constitutes some sort of autie litmus test or crucial autistic/NT difference. (This remark isn’t targeted at anyone in particular, but I had noticed similar sentiments reflected in several of the comments.) I don’t, for instance, laugh when someone is injured or in danger (my first instinct, for some reason, in those situations is to run away, which in other ways is also counterproductive in terms of the potential consequences). Or in various other instances where other auties have described being moved to “inappropriate” laughter. I’m not altogether sure it’s a simple binary matter of following natural instincts versus socially conditioned ones in every case, either (though on the subject of that, I do, yes, have what I know are socially conditioned instincts, so that seems to be another one of the autie litmus tests that I flunk). There’s always a sort of complex interaction between nature and nurture going on, IMO– I can’t always sort out the reflex component of my laughing in certain situations from the conditioning from actual experiences in which it was made clear to me that showing fear would have negative consequences, which probably serves to exaggerate, or add some conscious component to, that initial instinct.

  18. In my first comment I meant to say “people have TO become open to the idea” that they may mean totally different things by the same body language. It took me this long to see the typo, which totally changed the meaning of the sentence.

  19. “Lord Tennyson or whoever you fancy yourself to be, I am warning you.
    “This is the problem we face with wrongful dx’s of Sz that innapropriate laughter is counted as yet another symptom. As Amanda was saying to begin with what is probably a reaction in virtually all of the human species but socially self suppressed in NT’s (though not always) is pathologised when it comes to people who are “obviosly not normal””

    The fact that autism and schizophrenia are not the same thing doesn’t mean they have nothing in common.
    And the fact that autistics have been harmed by being misdiagnosed as schizophrenic doesn’t mean we should ignore the similarities.
    I once read a book written by a woman who was clearly childhood schizophrenic (as clearly as anyone can be). She was definately not autistic. But reading her story I found that she described traits that are also present in autistics, such as being very sensitive to certain kinds of real stimulation, such as crowds or certain colors or textures.
    Both autism and schizophrenia are associated with altered nonverbal signals, taking the form of ‘flat’ and/or ‘innaproriate’ nonverbal signals. Laughing at upsetting things, in our society, would fit that criteria, as well as having one facial expression most of the time, and so on.
    There are also some differences, such as the lack of hallucinations and being very logical in autistics as opposed to hallucinations and delusions in schizophrenics.

  20. You don’t need to have hallucinations or delusions (as defined by… anyone) in order to be labeled schizophrenic.

    I don’t believe in either separating or combining autism and schizophrenia.

    Because everything I read shows the label of schizophrenia to be as outdated, based on erroneous assumptions, heterogenous, and meaningless, as labels like “nervous breakdown,” “feeblemindedness,” and “neurasthenia.”

    Just because, for instance, multiple sclerosis exists, and has obvious physical signs, doesn’t mean that neurasthenia (which at times encompassed some forms of MS) is a valid category. Just because epilepsy exists doesn’t mean feeblemindedness (which at times encompassed some forms of epilepsy) is a valid category. And just because hallucinations and delusions (and things that seem like them) exist doesn’t mean schizophrenia is a valid category.

    I find it difficult to see how anyone could research the history of schizophrenia, including getting into the early case studies it was based on, and believe it’s a meaningful word.

    So, I won’t say what being autistic is in relation to schizophrenia, because schizophrenia seems like a desperately held onto mythology that once encompassed autism and only doesn’t now because of historical and political factors, rather than because there’s a thing called “schizophrenia” that was neatly separated off from being autistic at some point in time.

    I think the point Larry (and a few others, and me) was making, though, was that so-called inappropriate laughter is only considered a “symptom” when it occurs in a non-standard person. In a standard person, it’s considered a reaction to extreme stress. In a non-standard person, it’s considered pathology or monstrousness. No matter what label that non-standard person wears.

  21. I am realizing more and more how much NT’s focus on “correct behaviour” rather than focusing on the situation that influences the behaviour. As an NT I can remember times in crisis situations where I would smile (and then wonder why in the world am I doing this??) and force myself to stop simply because I feared “what others would think’. And I thought I was the only one who experienced that. relief. Anyway it does also help in understanding some people that I know and realizing that I have majorly misjudged them and their attitudes. I will certainly be a lot more careful about accusing someone of being heartless if they start laughing at someone else’s misfortune. One thing I am wondering that hasnt been brought up – would the “I need to be macho or strong ” attitude have anything to do with the laughing ?

  22. When I mention inappropriate laughter btw, I don’t say that I consider it inappropriate for me, just considered that way by others. As for behavior, sometimes there is a reason for my behavior and sometimes there is not. It’s good to ask though what I’m feeling I think or what I’m thinking instead of making an assumption. Is there a problem noting that there are some who are diagnosed schizophrenic (even if it is as Amanda is pointing out…) who are considered to have inappropriate laughter as are a lot of autistics. I don’t think such is diagnostic criteria, just observation.

    And sure, I’ll fancy myself Lord Alfred Tennyson instead of Lord Alfred Henry. Maybe it’s time for me to write some poetry. So does King Laurentious, or whoever you fancy yourself to be, have any requests?

  23. I do think too that I get the pathologizing/psychiatric classification of behaviors like laughter that are fairly beniegn but will get someone viewed as “monstrous” and the like or “mad/crazy/maniac/maniacal” etc etc. and that in all reality, it’s just an expression just like everyone else has albeit perhaps out of the local cultural / (neurological) social contexts for some. Didn’t mean to emphasize it or think that it was a big issue. More or less an experience relating of little consequence perhaps other than most of what I consider worth considering might be bare to the experiential / observational level rather than generalize or make any claims.

  24. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » My post about 9/11, since others are blogging about this.

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