Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

Overview

Robert Provine boldly goes where other scientists seldom tread-in search of hiccups, coughs, yawns, sneezes, and other lowly, undignified human behaviors. Upon investigation, these instinctive acts bear the imprint of our evolutionary origins and can be uniquely valuable tools for understanding how the human brain works and what makes us different from other species.

Many activities showcased in Curious Behavior are contagious, but none surpasses yawning in this regard-just ...

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Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

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Overview

Robert Provine boldly goes where other scientists seldom tread-in search of hiccups, coughs, yawns, sneezes, and other lowly, undignified human behaviors. Upon investigation, these instinctive acts bear the imprint of our evolutionary origins and can be uniquely valuable tools for understanding how the human brain works and what makes us different from other species.

Many activities showcased in Curious Behavior are contagious, but none surpasses yawning in this regard-just reading the word can make one succumb. Though we often take it as a sign of sleepiness or boredom, yawning holds clues to the development of our sociality and ability to empathize with others. Its inescapable transmission reminds us that we are sometimes unaware, neurologically programmed beasts of the herd. Other neglected behaviors yield similar revelations. Tickling, we learn, may be the key to programming personhood into robots. Coughing comes in musical, medical, and social varieties. Farting and belching have import for the evolution of human speech. And prenatal behavior is offered as the strangest exhibit of all, defying postnatal logic in every way. Our earthiest acts define Homo sapiens as much as language, bipedalism, tool use, and other more studied characteristics.

As Provine guides us through peculiarities right under our noses, he beckons us to follow with self-experiments: tickling our own feet, keeping a log of when we laugh, and attempting to suppress yawns and sneezes. Such humble investigations provide fodder for grade school science projects as well as doctoral dissertations. Small Science can yield big rewards.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Neuroscientist Provine delighted the public with Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. His new book, which is about many instinctive behaviors, could pack a similar punch. We are clearly captivated by our baser instincts, which science has overlooked. Provine “redresses historic debts” by focusing on such bodily behaviors as “Farting and Belching.” Tickling, for example, may tap into a neural mechanism for distinguishing ourselves from others, he says (i.e., “you can’t tickle yourself”). Contagious yawns—affecting 55% of those watching yawn videos—may reflect how our brains replicate observed behavior to create empathy. Further evidence for this is that autistic children, who lack empathy, can be immune to contagious yawning. As such areas are understudied, the book by necessity traffics in many hypotheticals, and dutifully cites some research with obvious conclusions, like “bored people really do yawn a lot.” But there is much to intrigue both general and serious readers, from a passage on herring farts calling fish together, to a study finding men less attracted to women whose tears they have sniffed (“Tear jerkers are not ideal date movies”). The book provides a not-yet definitive, but often fascinating, take on our most curious behaviors. 27 line illus. (Aug.)
Scientific American

Provine has written a charming ode to 'Small Science'—science that does not require a large budget or fancy equipment but that is interesting nonetheless. Taking examples from his own research, some of which involved nothing more complicated than stalking graduate students and observing how and when they laugh, he explains the origins of some of the most prevalent, but often overlooked, human behaviors.
— Anna Kuchment

New York Times

With its many facts and anecdotes and unexpected stories, [Curious Behavior] begs you to continue where curiosity leads you, down both the boulevards and the back alleys of science. And that is exactly how [Provine] thinks science should be pursued.
— James Gorman

Wall Street Journal

In this charmingly written and profoundly informative book, Provine gives us what he calls "sidewalk" neuroscience, a "scientific approach to everyday behavior based on simple observations and demonstrations that readers, even advanced grade-schoolers, can use to confirm, challenge, or extend the reported findings." In this era of "neurorealism," where much of the public believes you aren't doing real science if you aren't using fMRI to scan some brains, Provine's work in "small science" is refreshing. "The Small Science of this book is 'small,'" he explains, not because it is trivial but because it does not require "fancy equipment and a big budget." Small science teaches the art of observation and methods of interpretation: "Everyday life is teeming with the important and unexpected, if you know where to look and how to see." This message alone is worth the price of admission...Provine romps through the range of "curious behaviors" of his title, with each chapter offering up enlightening and unexpected findings...[A] marvelous book..."Small science" at its best.
— Carol Tavris

New Scientist

In Curious Behavior, neuroscientist Robert Provine discusses common yet seemingly strange actions, such as crying, tickling and yawning—subjects often overlooked by science. Beyond explaining how each of these actions work anatomically, Provine explores their functions, similarities and whether they might be linked by some higher, social purpose...Follow his advice, and Curious Behavior will leave you trying to yawn with clenched teeth, sneeze with your eyes open and noticing just how often you laugh at things that really aren't funny.
— Jessica Hamzelou

The Scientist

In Curious Behavior, Robert Provine provides clear, entertaining, and (most importantly) data-driven accounts of familiar yet overlooked human quirks. These include yawning, laughing, crying, tears, coughing, sneezing, hiccupping, vomiting and nausea, tickling, itching and scratching, farting and belching, and finally prenatal behavior. If you think you know when and why you laugh, what makes a face look sad, or why people yawn, you're probably in for a surprise...Written with humor and wit, Curious Behavior is an accessible and entertaining read with its musings about the theoretical Doomsday yawn, ineffectual astronaut tears, and the social implications of coughing and laughter. But it is also serious science about the importance of defining stimuli, using specific language, and understanding the difference between what people think they do, and what they actually do. The book may provide new windows into autistic behaviors, schizophrenia, and the definition of self...In a world where there is an increasing gulf between the public and scientists, Provine leads by example with straightforward science communication...This book is a must-have for any connoisseur of human behavior, whether studying in a classroom or from a barstool.
— Kenneth C. Catania

Nature
How can farting, sneezing and other marginal biological realities illuminate humanness? Neuroscientist Robert Provine turns an evolutionary lens on everything from the gross to the faintly improper. The "contagiousness" of yawning, for instance, hints at the roots of empathy and herd behavior. Burping and farting were involved in the development of speech, says Provine. And tickling may play a part in our early understanding that we are distinct beings (you can't tickle yourself). An exercise in "small science"--some of it speculative, all of it fascinating.
The Guardian

Why do we yawn, tickle, laugh, cough, scratch, sneeze, hiccup, vomit, or cry? Over the years, Provine has investigated these and other behaviors in the lab and on the street, and the result is beautifully written and constantly surprising.
— Steven Poole

Rachel Herz
A lively and entertaining romp through the quirks and oddities of the least controllable of human behaviors. The writing style and topics are so provocative, one is hard pressed not to enact these behaviors while reading.
Steven Pinker
The indefatigably curious Robert Provine explores the little quirks of behavior that—so far—have fascinated everyone but the scientists, and in doing so illuminates many aspects of our social lives, inner lives, and evolutionary origins.
Paul Bloom
Robert Provine shows how the methods of sidewalk neuroscience (simple and cheap observations of everyday life that everyone can do) can give rise to an alternative science of psychology. This is a delight to read, fascinating and humane and very often funny.
James W. Kalat
Why do we laugh? Why do we yawn? Why do we cry? What is itch? Finally, here is a book that addresses these age-old issues! Provine, the leading researcher of such phenomena, discovers the extraordinary hidden in plain sight. It's a joy to read.
Frans De Waal
Curious Behavior offers a lively and often surprising look at all the different ways we sneeze, cough, yawn, and broadcast other bodily functions. Open this book, which is based on serious research but reads like a detective novel, and find out how much more there is to such behavior than you ever thought.
V.S. Ramachandran
In this marvelous book, Provine—a pioneer in the field—puts these phenomena in proper evolutionary contexts, arguing that such seemingly odd quirks can often illuminate our understanding of human nature.
Scientific American - Anna Kuchment
Provine has written a charming ode to 'Small Science'—science that does not require a large budget or fancy equipment but that is interesting nonetheless. Taking examples from his own research, some of which involved nothing more complicated than stalking graduate students and observing how and when they laugh, he explains the origins of some of the most prevalent, but often overlooked, human behaviors.
New York Times - James Gorman
With its many facts and anecdotes and unexpected stories, [Curious Behavior] begs you to continue where curiosity leads you, down both the boulevards and the back alleys of science. And that is exactly how [Provine] thinks science should be pursued.
Wall Street Journal - Carol Tavris
In this charmingly written and profoundly informative book, Provine gives us what he calls "sidewalk" neuroscience, a "scientific approach to everyday behavior based on simple observations and demonstrations that readers, even advanced grade-schoolers, can use to confirm, challenge, or extend the reported findings." In this era of "neurorealism," where much of the public believes you aren't doing real science if you aren't using fMRI to scan some brains, Provine's work in "small science" is refreshing. "The Small Science of this book is 'small,'" he explains, not because it is trivial but because it does not require "fancy equipment and a big budget." Small science teaches the art of observation and methods of interpretation: "Everyday life is teeming with the important and unexpected, if you know where to look and how to see." This message alone is worth the price of admission...Provine romps through the range of "curious behaviors" of his title, with each chapter offering up enlightening and unexpected findings...[A] marvelous book..."Small science" at its best.
New Scientist - Jessica Hamzelou
In Curious Behavior, neuroscientist Robert Provine discusses common yet seemingly strange actions, such as crying, tickling and yawning—subjects often overlooked by science. Beyond explaining how each of these actions work anatomically, Provine explores their functions, similarities and whether they might be linked by some higher, social purpose...Follow his advice, and Curious Behavior will leave you trying to yawn with clenched teeth, sneeze with your eyes open and noticing just how often you laugh at things that really aren't funny.
The Scientist - Kenneth C. Catania
In Curious Behavior, Robert Provine provides clear, entertaining, and (most importantly) data-driven accounts of familiar yet overlooked human quirks. These include yawning, laughing, crying, tears, coughing, sneezing, hiccupping, vomiting and nausea, tickling, itching and scratching, farting and belching, and finally prenatal behavior. If you think you know when and why you laugh, what makes a face look sad, or why people yawn, you're probably in for a surprise...Written with humor and wit, Curious Behavior is an accessible and entertaining read with its musings about the theoretical Doomsday yawn, ineffectual astronaut tears, and the social implications of coughing and laughter. But it is also serious science about the importance of defining stimuli, using specific language, and understanding the difference between what people think they do, and what they actually do. The book may provide new windows into autistic behaviors, schizophrenia, and the definition of self...In a world where there is an increasing gulf between the public and scientists, Provine leads by example with straightforward science communication...This book is a must-have for any connoisseur of human behavior, whether studying in a classroom or from a barstool.
The Guardian - Steven Poole
Why do we yawn, tickle, laugh, cough, scratch, sneeze, hiccup, vomit, or cry? Over the years, Provine has investigated these and other behaviors in the lab and on the street, and the result is beautifully written and constantly surprising.
Times Higher Education - Tristan Bekinschtein
[Provine] is a valiant man and this is an original book: a book about people's quirks and the uncomfortable noises that we have suppressed, particularly after Victorian times. Why would someone study those seemingly uninteresting and inappropriate acts? I would say the answer lies in the questions this neuroscientist has asked himself: why do we burp or sneeze? What is a cough? What has really gone with the wind? Well, you don't really know—and you won't until you read Curious Behavior...This disarmingly enchanting book manages to 'handle' even flatulence in the most skillful and scientific manner without ever losing focus on Provine's aim: an accurate description of the topic via a look at mechanisms, evolutionary advantages, limits and statistics...Prepare to be contaminated by this book and get ready to analyze the way you sneeze, cough and everything else.
Sacramento Book Review - Aron Row
In this engrossing account of some curious physiological behaviors, neuroscientist Robert Provine not only describes the biologic basis for some curious human actions such as laughing, itching, hiccuping, vomiting, coughing, sneezing and several more curiosities, he also describes the experiments performed to clarify these sometimes embarrassing operations...Fascinating descriptions and explanations about human behavior oddities are candidly presented with added whimsy for sweetening. Suitable for all ages, it's the sort of a book on quirky embarrassing behaviors that you observed and performed, but were too afraid to talk about.
Choice - K. S. Milar
Readers will enjoy the stories and find the glimpses into the neuroscience of these curious behaviors engaging.
Frans de Waal
Curious Behavior offers a lively and often surprising look at all the different ways we sneeze, cough, yawn, and broadcast other bodily functions. Open this book, which is based on serious research but reads like a detective novel, and find out how much more there is to such behavior than you ever thought.
Nature
How can farting, sneezing and other marginal biological realities illuminate humanness? Neuroscientist Robert Provine turns an evolutionary lens on everything from the gross to the faintly improper. The "contagiousness" of yawning, for instance, hints at the roots of empathy and herd behavior. Burping and farting were involved in the development of speech, says Provine. And tickling may play a part in our early understanding that we are distinct beings (you can't tickle yourself). An exercise in "small science"—some of it speculative, all of it fascinating.
Library Journal
More than ten years after his Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Provine (psychology & neuroscience, Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore Cnty.) revisits the human phenomenon of laughing and explores 12 other curiosities of human life, including yawning, vocal crying, emotional tearing, the whites of our eyes—did you ever stop to note that only we humans have that sclera?—coughing, sneezing, hiccupping, nausea, tickling, itching/scratching, farting and belching, and, at the end, prenatal behavior, one of the trickiest of subjects to study: regrettably we cannot "consult embryos for guidance" about their behavior. Do you think that each of the behaviors covered here is merely a randomly eccentric human quirk? Think again. For each of these odd functions, Provine dexterously combines wit, a fine way with words, and precise scientific context, to show us the evolutionary reason behind it. For example, emotional tears are not simply a signal of sadness. Evolutionarily, they must have served a purpose: they add "nuance and range" to our facial expressions, promoting the powers of "Homo sapiens as a social species." VERDICT This is a delectable presentation for all who love the territory between pop and hardcore science writing. Highly recommended.—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674284135
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/12/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,358,722
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert R. Provine is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 5: Whites of the Eyes


“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes,” said General Israel Putnam to his American militia when facing British forces at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. This military anecdote is the best-known reference to the sclera, the eyeball’s tough, white outer coating. The sclera deserves better. Like the emotional tears of the previous chapter, it’s a uniquely human medium that transforms social signaling. The human sclera signals emotion, health, age, disease, and gaze direction, cues unavailable to our dark- eyed primate cousins. Our white sclera is also the reason why eyedrops that “get the red out” are really beauty aids.

Considering the sensory organ of the eye as an organ of communication requires some inferential leaps. I will prepare the way by sharing my own meandering path of discovery. In graduate school, I had the good fortune to collaborate on some research projects with Jay Enoch, then professor in the Department of Ophthalmology of the Washington University School of Medicine. Jay— a gentleman, visual scientist, whites of the eyes and clinician of the first rank— is memorialized here as “Old Iron Eyes” for reasons that will become apparent. Our research required participants to wear thick, powerful contact lenses, and it seemed more efficient for us to manually apply and remove the contacts than for them to learn this skill; stressed, teary- eyed participants would not be good observers. Readers wearing contacts can empathize with their own first encounters with these lenses— it’s not normal to put a large foreign object in one’s eye, and copious tears are reflexively released to flush it out.

Jay suggested that I practice lens application and removal on him and I applied and removed the lenses every minute or so until I eventually mastered the task, many trials later. This made me a bit queasy, and I teared up a bit, but Jay seemed unconcerned, once chatting away on the telephone while I leaned over him, applying and removing the contacts. Let’s face it, touching another person’s eyeball is a special kind of intimacy. His nonchalance reduced but did not eliminate my apprehension. However, another year in this department might have done the trick: students could earn extra cash by harvesting cadaver eyeballs, which were stored in glass jars beside our lunch sacks in the lab refrigerator. Working with Jay and my hardy experimental subjects alerted me to the sympathetic tearing triggered by observing the discomfort, eye redness, and tearing of other people. My next revelation came years later, when I was a professor at my present university.

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Table of Contents

introduction 1

1 yawning 12

2 laughing 39

3 vocal crying 65

4 emotional tearing 79

5 whites of the eyes 94

6 coughing 104

7 sneezing 116

8 hiccupping 129

9 vomiting and nausea 147

10 tickling 164

11 itching and scratching 176

12 farting and belching 189

13 prenatal behavior 201

appendix: the behavioral keyboard 217

notes 221

references 241

acknowledgments 263

index 265

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