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Laughter is a social lubricant, but to what end? What does it help us do, in a group, that strengthens that group’s social bonds? All is revealed in Episode 10 – the Season 1 finale – of The Neuromantics, your monthly meeting of scientific and literary minds.

According to Alan Gray, Brian Parkinson and Robin Dunbar, in their 2015 paper on the Intimacy of Self-Disclosure, laughing in company increases our willingness to trust others with personal information – and it’s the laughter itself that does this, not our mood (affect), or whatever it is that prompts the laughter. Which is just as well, because there’s no scientific mean for the comical: we all laugh at different things and for different reasons.

But it’s always some kind of exchange, and comic exchanges have their manipulative shadow side. Who better to illustrate that than the great Shirley Jackson, doyenne of the literary macabre? “Trial By Combat”, from her classic collection, The Lottery and Other Stories (1949), takes the polite but sociable relationship between two tenants of a furnished apartment block and turns it into a terrifying study in mysterious intentions and helplessness. What gives other people their power over us? And why do we submit?

NB: This is a ‘lockdown’ recording, with associated glitches in sound quality. But don’t worry! We’ll be back in the studio soon for the start of Season 2.

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