A good laugh is contagious. These New Zealand parrots seem to agree.

When researcher Raoul Schwing went up to the valley, a bird tried to take apart his car.

Photo from iStock.

That bird, a kea, was precisely the reason he was there. Keas are large parrots that live in the mountainous areas of New Zealand's South Island. They're wicked smart and armed with a beak like a Swiss army knife, which makes them great at dismantling puzzles (and Schwing's poor car).


They're also highly social and love to play with each other, chasing their bird peers in complex aerial dogfights or hopping across the ground and making a huge variety of whoops and calls. It was those play calls that Schwing was really interested in, a kind of squeaky "bwa-ha-haaaa."

It sounded — well, it sounded a lot like laughter.

Was it laughter Schwing was hearing? That raises a weird question: Can animals even laugh?

Photo from iStock.

Laughter is a difficult concept to study. There are plenty of animals that sound like they’re laughing. Kookaburras, for instance, or hyenas. But a kookaburra’s laugh is territorial, not gleeful, and a hyena’s cackling seems to be the equivalent of a nervous wail, not it enjoying a particularly hilarious joke.

True laughter is as much as message as it is a noise. In humans, it's a way to communicate playfulness or relaxation and a way to infect others with that mood as well. We might laugh at our dates' corny jokes not because they're the next Tig Notaro, but to show we're having a good time. We giggle when we're nervous to let off steam, and we add laugh tracks under sitcoms to invite the audience into the joke.

In this emotional messaging capacity, most animals aren't part of the evolutionary comedy club. But there are some. It turns out that rats enjoy a good tickle. There's tentative evidence dogs might laugh. Great apes, like chimps or orangutans, seem to laugh too. None of them sounds like human laughter — rats giggle at frequencies too high for humans to hear and chimps sound like they're panting — but they seem to carry that oh-so-important emotional messaging.

But do keas deserve entry into this group? Maybe, says Schwing.

Photo from Raoul Schwing.

When Schwing went to the research sites, he brought with him a specially designed, kea-proof speaker system (no taking apart this one). From a distance, he could use a remote control to play a variety of recorded calls at the kea.

Most didn't seem to have any specific effect, but the play call — that bwa-ha-ha noise — did. When he played it, nearby kea often would turn to each other and begin hopping and playfully chasing each other around. Even solitary birds got into the act, playing with objects or doing aerial acrobatics. In short, the play call definitely seemed to fit the emotional contagion category.

So while it may be going a bit far to label this as laughter as we humans know it, it could at least be a cousin of it.

Schwing and his team published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

These kinds of studies can have a lot of interesting results, but maybe most of all, they remind us how complex animals can be.

Some researchers have used it to study how our brains organize emotion or create a mood; there's even a potential antidepressant currently being tested that got its start from studying laughter in rats. Others have used laughter in the great apes to speculate about our own human roots.

For Schwing and his colleagues, studying the kea's play call gave them a window into the animal's social life. They're planning to continue to study the role of play in the kea's lives.

If nothing else, it's something to think about. "If animals can laugh," said Schwing, "we are not so different from them."

Several years ago, you wouldn't have known what QAnon was unless you spent a lot of time reading through comments on Twitter or frequented internet chat rooms. Now, with prominent Q adherents making headlines for storming the U.S. Capitol and elements of the QAnon worldview spilling into mainstream politics, the conspiracy theory/doomsday cult has become a household topic of conversation.

Many of us have watched helplessly as friends and family members fall down the rabbit hole, spewing strange ideas about Democrats and celebrities being pedophiles who torture children while Donald Trump leads a behind-the-scenes roundup of these evil Deep State actors. Perfectly intelligent people can be susceptible to conspiracy theories, no matter how insane, which makes it all the more frustrating.

A person who was a true believer in QAnon mythology (which you can read more about here) recently participated in an "Ask Me Anything" thread on Reddit, and what they shared about their experiences was eye-opening. The writer's Reddit handle is "diceblue," but for simplicity's sake we'll call them "DB."

DB explained that they weren't new to conspiracy theories when QAnon came on the scene. "I had been DEEP into conspiracy for about 8 years," they wrote. "Had very recently been down the ufo paranormal rabbit hole so when Q really took off midterm for trump I 'did my research' and fell right into it."

DB says they were a true believer until a couple of years ago when they had an experience that snapped them out of it:

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True

If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.

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Two weeks ago, we watched a pro-Trump mob storm the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the results of a U.S. election and keep Donald Trump in power. And among those insurrectionists were well-known adherents of QAnon, nearly every image of the crowd shows people wearing Q gear or carrying Q flags, and some of the more frightening elements we saw tie directly into QAnon beliefs.

Since hints of it first started showing up in social media comments several years ago, I've been intrigued—and endlessly frustrated—by the phenomenon of QAnon. At first, it was just a few fringey whacko conspiracy theorists I could easily roll my eyes at and ignore, but as I started seeing elements of it show up more and more frequently from more and more people, alarm bells started ringing.

Holy crap, there are a lot of people who actually believe this stuff.

Eventually, it got personal. A QAnon adherent on Twitter kept commenting on my tweets, pushing bizarro Q ideas on many of my posts. The account didn't use a real name, but the profile was classic QAnon, complete with the #WWG1WGA. ("Where we go one, we go all"—a QAnon rallying cry.) I thought it might be a bot, so I blocked them. Later, I discovered that it was actually one of my own extended family members.

Holy crap, I actually know people who actually believe this stuff.

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Images via Canva and Unsplash

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that being in a pandemic sucks.

However, we seem to be on different pages as to what sucks most about it. Many of us are struggling with being separated from our friends and loved ones for so long. Some of us have lost friends and family to the virus, while others are dealing with ongoing health effects of their own illness. Millions are struggling with job loss and financial stress due to businesses being closed. Parents are drowning, dealing with their kids' online schooling and lack of in-person social interactions on top of their own work logistics. Most of us hate wearing masks (even if we do so diligently), and the vast majority of us are just tired of having to think about and deal with everything the pandemic entails.

Much has been made of the mental health impact of the pandemic, which is a good thing. We need to have more open conversations about mental health in general, and with everything so upside down, it's more important now than ever. However, it feels like pandemic mental health conversations have been dominated by people who want to justify anti-lockdown arguments. "We can't let the cure be worse than the disease," people say. Kids' mental health is cited as a reason to open schools, the mental health challenges of financial despair as a reason to keep businesses open, and the mental health impact of social isolation as a reason to ditch social distancing measures.

It's not that those mental health challenges aren't real. They most definitely are. But when we focus exclusively on the mental health impact of lockdowns, we miss the fact that there are also significant mental health struggles on the other side of those arguments.

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