Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyondby Robert R. Provine
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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
In Curious Behavior, neuroscientist Robert Provine discusses common yet seemingly strange actions, such as crying, tickling and yawningsubjects 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.
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
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.
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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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Rachel Herz, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University and author of That's Disgusting
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature
Meet the Author
Robert R. Provine is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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