Published online 1 April 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.715


Laughter brings out a red nose

Clown make-up may have a foundation in biology.

A traditionally made-up clown...Getty

New research has revealed that the red nose and face-painting traditionally associated with clowns may have its origins in science.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom used highly sensitive infrared imagers to observe people as they laughed at jokes and video clips. The devices were able to accurately map heat changes in the face.

A hearty laugh was associated with "both a reddening of the nose and a white area directly around the mouth", says Wiseman. "These features form a key part of the make-up traditionally associated with clowning, and could explain why this unusual type of face-painting is associated with humour."

...and an infrared image of someone laughing.Tracy King

In a second part of the experiment, participants were asked to fake a laugh. Under these circumstances, their noses didn't redden. The research team thinks that the heating up of the nasal area might have evolved as a subtle signal to indicate a genuine emotional state, they report in the Journal of Jest.

Pierrot Auguste, president of the International Association of Clowns, Mimes and Stilt-walkers in Paris, says, "This new research helps reveal the science underlying our art, and we hope that those in the humour-related professions will now be taken more seriously". 

April fools: as you may have spotted, this story is not true... enjoy your 1 April.

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