Christmas lectures on language and laughter

Professor Sophie Scott to deliver prestigious annual talks.

Forty years after Professor Sophie Scott was enthralled by Carl Sagan’s Royal Institution Christmas Lectures she will be taking to the stage herself to inspire a whole new era of future scientists. Scott’s  lectures will explore communication in humans and other animals – from voices and laughter to emojis and language. 

The Christmas Lecture series was started by Michael Faraday and aimed at a younger audience who could attend during their Christmas break. Held every year since 1825, excluding 1939 to 1942 due to the Second World War, the lectures are now broadcast every Christmas on BBC Four and have included series by naturalist David Attenborough in 1973 and chemist Saiful Islam last year. 

Scott (University College London) is well-known for her work exploring vocal communication and the neurobiology of speech and speech production. As a stand-up comedian herself Scott is famed for her research on laughter, and her 2015 TED talk ‘Why we laugh’ has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. You can read more about her work in our online archive. 

Scott’s first lecture will explore the development of the human voice, how laughter provides a link to our evolutionary past, how the voice box has changed the shape of our faces and why we sound like we do. In her second lecture Scott will speak about the more hidden side of communication including contagious behaviours and the emotional clues in smell. In the final lecture she will look into a mystery of science, how and when humans evolved language, revealing the incredible brain power and sensory skill needed to understand even a simple sentence. 

Scott told us she hoped her lectures would be fun and accessible and show how diverse a science psychology is. ‘This is a huge deal personally as the Christmas Lectures were very important to me as a child – I very clearly recall watching the Sagan ones in 1977, and I was absolutely hooked. I already liked science and this was such an exciting glimpse into the real world of scientific research. I think it’s a great thing for psychology to be featured again – coming after Bruce Hood’s excellent lectures in 2011 – and it’s also a massive responsibility to make sure we do justice to the field and to the existing research. I am very excited and I want to do this as well as I can.’ 

Next year Scott will tour the lectures in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

- Due to demand tickets for the event can only be obtained by ballot.

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