Curious Behavior

Curious Behavior

Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

Book - 2012
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Harvard University Press

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

Baker & Taylor
Explores the quirks of human behavior, looking at why such reflexive acts as yawning, sneezing, and hiccupping can explain how the human brain works and may shed light on the instinctual range of behavior.

Book News
The kinds of reflexive behaviors people rarely think about, and are often embarassed by, are the topic of this entertaining popular book by Robert R. Provine (psychology and neuroscience, U. of Maryland, Baltimore County). Provine devotes a chapter to each behavior: yawning, laughing, crying out loud, tearing up, coughing, sneezing, hiccupping, vomiting, tickling, itching and scratching, and farting and belching. He throws in a couple of other categories: the fact that humans have visible whites to our eyes (most mammals do not), and the behavior of fetuses in the womb. The primary goal of the book is to entertain readers with facts about human biology. However, Provine has a basic neuroscientific interest, which he defines as "the behavioral keyboard." By looking at reaction times for these reflexive behaviors, whether we can perform them on command, and how long it takes us to do so, he hopes to understand more about the basic instinctual range of human behavior. Similarly, he hopes to learn more about instinctual human behaviors by looking at fetal behavior. General readers interested in life science, and readers who enjoy books on strange customs or outré stories (La Petomaine, the famous French farting performer), will find this book an entertaining read. Belknap Press is an imprint of Harvard U. Press. Annotation ©2012 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9780674048515
0674048512
Branch Call Number: 152.32 PRO
Characteristics: vii, 271 p. : ill. ; 22 cm

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