Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccuping, and Beyond

It may be better in than out, but as social animals we can’t help ourselves, Tristan Bekinschtein finds

November 15, 2012

What do you like in a book? Originality. What do you like in a character? Bravery. Robert Provine is a real character. Not from a book, but from real life. Could someone please make a movie about this scientist? He deserves to be a hero for more people than simply those who will read his work. He 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.

Sneezing, coughing and yawning have evolved and are apparently present in all mammals. They must therefore confer (or at some point have conferred) an evolutionary advantage. What is that advantage? I could feel the biologist in me bubbling with excitement while reading the first few chapters, and my inner psychologist and sociologist - they are a bit better hidden - starting to ask questions like mad. Why are these things contagious? What is the social advantage in their being so catchy? Is this always the case in all cultures? Provine takes on these questions and as a hardcore scientist deals in experiments to provide us with the (sometimes scant) available evidence for each query.

He writes with wit. That is sometimes enough to keep me reading a book, but fortunately there is more. Provine fearlessly explores the borderlands of scientific experimentation by studying these non-verbal outputs of the body, these behaviours that hardly any funding agency would consider serious subjects for enquiry and that would barely elicit interest beyond the Ig Nobel Prize judges. Incidentally, Provine surely deserves an Ig Nobel, because those awards are given for research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think. That is exactly what he has been doing for most of his scientific career, and that is probably what we should do here: laugh first and then think.

Curious Behavior is an object lesson for researchers in following your heart and ignoring those little voices in your head (we all have them, don’t we?) that tell you which path to follow. Be brave, study what you love or what you think is interesting, regardless of where you are - a bit idealistic, perhaps, but surely that is what books are for.

Oh, and don’t forget laughter. You can read about this curious behaviour here, along with all those other corporeal exclamations that Provine considers. As we all know, it is difficult to explain a joke and maintain the magic. Happily, when this book looks at mirth, it does not lose the enchantment en route to explaining why we laugh and what laughter is. More importantly, Provine says, we do not laugh at jokes themselves: we laugh in social situations, like social animals. We rarely laugh alone.

This disarmingly enchanting book manages to “handle” even flatulence in the most skilful 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. Arguably, he goes slightly off topic when he suggests that with sufficient training people can “butt-speak”. He offers as an example Le Petomane, the famous “airblower artiste” Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), who could “sing” La Marseillaise. However, after this extraordinary gentleman’s inverse speaking, there is, it appears, a long gap - one that perhaps there’s no need to cross.

And then there are tears. They change everything, this good book says. But funnily enough, they can appear in sobbing, yawning, laughing and sneezing as well as in anguish or pain. So tears may be a commonality between all these behaviours that is well engraved in convergent evolution, or perhaps they are something else: a latecomer that contradicts all those old, well-told Darwinian stories. And we overinterpret tears, in ourselves and others. So think again before reacting to someone crying - make sure they are a true weeper in distress.

Prepare to be contaminated by this book and get ready to analyse the way you sneeze, cough and everything else. Just as it is hard to avoid yawning even when simply reading about and imagining it, it will now be difficult for you not to be curious about all these behaviours.

Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccuping, and Beyond

By Robert R. Provine

Harvard University Press

288pp, £18.95

ISBN 9780674048515

Published 30 August 2012

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