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Curious Behavior

Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

Robert R. Provine
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 246
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  • Book Info
    Curious Behavior
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06722-6
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Anthropology, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    We humans are talkative, sociable, bipedal, tool-using mammals that Shakespeare found noble in reason and infinite in faculty. The Bible tells us that we are made in God’s own image. We have walked on the Moon, invented the computer, and analyzed our own evolution. But humans are also farting, belching, yawning, hiccupping, coughing, laughing, crying, sneezing, vomiting, itchy, scratching, ticklish herd animals. These beastly, instinctive acts help to define us as a species, but they are neglected by scientists who overlook the familiar. Biologists usually focus on general processes in physiology or genetics, not specific, unheralded acts. Social scientists attend...

  4. 1 Yawning
    (pp. 12-38)

    We steer our body through life’s straits and shoals, walking, working, talking, speeding up and slowing down, avoiding obstacles. We are captains of our ship, alert, confident, and rational. That is the illusion. But what if we are deceived by our brain’s subtle whispers, its effort, as in dreams, to weave a coherent, sometimes faulty narrative from irrational events? Are we instead unthinking herd animals, driven by subconscious instincts, acting out our species’ ancient biological script? Pursuit of this theme requires rethinking the human condition and turning history on its head, immodest goals for a chapter about yawning. We will...

  5. 2 Laughing
    (pp. 39-64)

    Consider the bizarre events of the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika (now Tanzania).¹⁻³ What began as an isolated fit of laughter in a group of twelve- to eighteen-year-old schoolgirls rapidly rose to epidemic proportions. Contagious laughter propagated from one individual to the next, eventually infecting adjacent communities. Like an influenza outbreak, the laughter epidemic was so severe that it required the closing of at least fourteen schools and afflicted about a thousand people. Fluctuating in intensity, it lasted for around two and a half years. A psychogenic, hysterical origin of the epidemic was established after excluding alternatives such...

  6. 3 Vocal crying
    (pp. 65-78)

    Think of life’s most annoying sounds—those cringe-producing, fingernails-on-the-blackboard sounds that demand to be stopped, now! The crying of babies is near the top of the list of unpleasant sounds.¹ Whether it’s that of your own child or of the ticking time bomb enthroned at the adjacent table at a restaurant, the cry grates on the senses, kicks in the doors of our auditory attention center, and demands action—to stop that damned sound. How unlike the laughter of the previous chapter, which makes you want to join in the merriment, unless the joke’s on you.

    Babies are mini-tyrants by...

  7. 4 Emotional tearing
    (pp. 79-93)

    What’s so remarkable about tears? Tears bathe, lubricate, and heal the eyes,¹⁻⁴ but is that cause for excitement? For the physiologically inclined, it’s notable that tears contain lysozyme, the body’s own antibiotic—who wants mossy eyeballs teaming with microbes? Tears’ contribution becomes obvious when they cease, producing the discomfort and pathology of dry eye. Basal tears are continuously secreted to lubricate and wet the eye, improve optical performance by smoothing the otherwise rough corneal surface, and are a reflexive response to irritation (e.g., abrasion, onion). Tears form a multilayered film on the eye, an inner layer with lubricating mucin, a...

  8. 5 Whites of the eyes
    (pp. 94-103)

    “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...

  9. 6 Coughing
    (pp. 104-115)

    A cough provides a pneumatic blast that clears the throat and lungs of irritants and debris, an act necessary for good health, or, in emergencies, even survival. When chronic, coughing is the leading medical complaint, usually of upper respiratory illness. Despite these impressive physiological and medical credentials, coughing seems an unlikely topic for a scientific detective story. Where is the passion to understand airway maintenance? However, several factors recommend it. Coughing is a simple behavior that can be produced on command and is easy to measure. Easy is good. No waiting around for rare, unpredictable behaviors such as sneezing or...

  10. 7 Sneezing
    (pp. 116-128)

    Sneezes are humbling. From the first tickling, burning sensations in the nostrils until its explosive climax, a sneeze hijacks our body and commands our attention. Titillating pre-sneeze sensations may wax and wane for many seconds, but we are already in their grasp. A sneeze is nagging and insistent, intrusive and incorrigible, and can’t be willed out of existence. Once the process of sneezing is under way, it goes to completion, as with yawns. We are automata under its control.

    The exertions of a sneeze are so great that they can put even the mighty at risk. Baseball slugger Sammy Sosa...

  11. 8 Hiccupping
    (pp. 129-146)

    “Jennifer Mee, a 15-year-old who started hiccupping four weeks ago today and has yet to stop,” was a story that led to her appearance on NBC’s Today, and—according to Jennifer’s family—fifty-seven calls from ABC’s competing Good Morning America, plus contacts from The Ellen DeGeneres Show and many other print and broadcast outlets in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain (St. Petersburg Times, February 20, 2007). A Google search for “Jennifer Mee” brings up many pages of hits, and searching for “hiccup” yields additional hits for her. Jennifer is well established as the “hiccup girl.” Whether spontaneous or...

  12. 9 Vomiting and nausea
    (pp. 147-163)

    My first serious thinking about vomiting (emesis) and nausea came at age twelve during a cross-country family automobile trip. Six family members piled into our big green Buick sedan, and we set off on our long journey, planning to save time and money by making ham sandwiches from ingredients stored in an ice chest instead of stopping at a restaurant. The flaw in this plan became apparent several hours after our lunch on the road. Cousin Karen started to feel queasy and soon started vomiting, only sometimes managing to discharge out of the car’s window, a significant oversight. The sight,...

  13. 10 Tickling
    (pp. 164-175)

    You cannot tickle yourself. From this basic observation comes insight into the neurological program for social play, the neurological computation of self and other, a possible defect in autism, and how to program personhood into robots and improve their performance. Insights that now seem so clear had an uncertain genesis.

    The impetus for my program in tickle research came via astronomy. I was invited to speak about laughter at the Goddard Space Flight Center, an exciting opportunity for an amateur astronomer and telescope builder such as myself. Before my talk, a young female astronomer volunteered that she certainly hoped that...

  14. 11 Itching and scratching
    (pp. 176-188)

    The itching of M.’s scalp was relentless and unbearable.¹ The nights were the worst, when she would scratch during sleep, waking in the morning with blood on her pillowcase. Hair was lost in the itchy area on her right forehead. Her internist was puzzled, and medicated creams didn’t help. Scratching brought fleeting gratification but not lasting relief. The urgency of her problem became clear when M. awoke one morning with fluid running down her face. She placed gauze on her forehead and returned to her internist, who immediately called an ambulance and sent her to a hospital emergency room: during...

  15. 12 Farting and belching
    (pp. 189-200)

    Some people possess gifts so extraordinary that they define what is possible for our species. Such a man was Frenchman Joseph Pujol (1857–1945), stage name “Le Pétomane.”¹ Pujol’s unique gift was based on his ability to “inhale” through his rectum, an act accomplished by expanding his abdomen while ceasing to breathe through his nose and mouth. Air thus inhaled could be exhaled with force sufficient to extinguish a candle from a distance of a foot—no mean feat. But such tricks were neither the true measure of his artistry nor, as we will learn, his unappreciated contribution to science....

  16. 13 Prenatal behavior
    (pp. 201-214)

    You are tumbling, submerged and weightless, in a warm and watery place, breathless but not suffocating. Your body jerks, twists, and bends, grasped by seizures out of your control, restrained by an unseen tether. The wet darkness is punctuated by pounding heartbeats, your own and another of unknown origin. To this relentless cardiac cadence are added occasional rumblings, gurgles, and periodic weak, higher-pitched bursts of what you later know to be speech. Sound terrifying? It’s part of the universal human experience, although you don’t remember it. Such is prenatal life, a period brought to a dramatic close by a long,...

  17. APPENDIX: The behavioral keyboard
    (pp. 217-220)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 221-240)
  19. References
    (pp. 241-262)
  20. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 263-264)
  21. Index
    (pp. 265-271)