271 pages, 27 b/w illustrations
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] 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 [...] This disarmingly enchanting book manages to 'handle' even flatulence in the most skillful 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 [...] Prepare to be contaminated by this book and get ready to analyze the way you sneeze, cough and everything else."
– Tristan Bekinschtein, Times Higher Education
"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."
– Carol Tavris, The Wall Street Journal
"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."
– Steven Poole, The Guardian
"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."
– James Gorman, The New York Times
"Readers will enjoy the stories and find the glimpses into the neuroscience of these curious behaviors engaging."
– K.S. Milar, Choice
"Do you think that each of the behaviors covered here is merely a randomly eccentric human quirk? Think again. For each of these odd functions, Provine dexterously combines wit, a fine way with words, and precise scientific context, to show us the evolutionary reason behind it [...] This is a delectable presentation for all who love the territory between pop and hardcore science writing. Highly recommended."
– Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
"How can farting, sneezing and other marginal biological realities illuminate humanness? Neuroscientist Robert Provine turns an evolutionary lens on everything from the gross to the faintly improper. The 'contagiousness' of yawning, for instance, hints at the roots of empathy and herd behavior. Burping and farting were involved in the development of speech, says Provine. And tickling may play a part in our early understanding that we are distinct beings (you can't tickle yourself). An exercise in 'small science' – some of it speculative, all of it fascinating."
"In Curious Behavior, neuroscientist Robert Provine discusses common yet seemingly strange actions, such as crying, tickling and yawning – subjects 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."
– Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist
"The book provides a not-yet definitive, but often fascinating, take on our most curious behaviors."
– Publishers Weekly
"In this engrossing account of some curious physiological behaviors, neuroscientist Robert Provine not only describes the biologic basis for some curious human actions such as laughing, itching, hiccuping, vomiting, coughing, sneezing and several more curiosities, he also describes the experiments performed to clarify these sometimes embarrassing operations [...] Fascinating descriptions and explanations about human behavior oddities are candidly presented with added whimsy for sweetening. Suitable for all ages, it's the sort of a book on quirky embarrassing behaviors that you observed and performed, but were too afraid to talk about."
– Aron Row, Sacramento Book Review
"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."
– Anna Kuchment, Scientific American
"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, The Scientist
"Robert Provine shows how the methods of sidewalk neuroscience (simple and cheap observations of everyday life that everyone can do) can give rise to an alternative science of psychology. This is a delight to read, fascinating and humane and very often funny."
– Paul Bloom, Yale University, author of How Pleasure Works
"Curious Behavior offers a lively and often surprising look at all the different ways we sneeze, cough, yawn, and broadcast other bodily functions. Open this book, which is based on serious research but reads like a detective novel, and find out how much more there is to such behavior than you ever thought."
– Frans de Waal, Emory University, author of The Age of Empathy
"A lively and entertaining romp through the quirks and oddities of the least controllable of human behaviors. The writing style and topics are so provocative, one is hard pressed not to enact these behaviors while reading."
– Rachel Herz, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University, author of That's Disgusting
"Why do we laugh? Why do we yawn? Why do we cry? What is itch? Finally, here is a book that addresses these age-old issues! Provine, the leading researcher of such phenomena, discovers the extraordinary hidden in plain sight. It's a joy to read."
– James W. Kalat, North Carolina State University, author of Biological Psychology (11th ed.)
"The indefatigably curious Robert Provine explores the little quirks of behavior that – so far – have fascinated everyone but the scientists, and in doing so illuminates many aspects of our social lives, inner lives, and evolutionary origins."
– Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, author of How the Mind Works and The Better Angels of Our Nature
"In this marvelous book, Provine – a pioneer in the field – puts these phenomena in proper evolutionary contexts, arguing that such seemingly odd quirks can often illuminate our understanding of human nature."
– V.S. Ramachandran, University of California, San Diego, author of The Tell-Tale Brain
3. Vocal Crying
4. Emotional Tearing
5. Whites of the Eyes
9. Vomiting and Nausea
11. Itching and Scratching
12. Farting and Belching
13. Prenatal Behavior
Appendix: The Behavioral Keyboard
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Robert R. Provine is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.