Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Spontaneous Human Emissions

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Spontaneous Human Emissions

Article excerpt

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

Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccuping, and Beyond

By Robert R. Provine

Harvard University Press

288pp, Pounds 18.95

ISBN 9780674048515

Published 30 August 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? …

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