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Curious Behaviour

Yawning, laughing, hiccupping, and beyond

by Robert R. Provine

(New Scientist)

Could sneezing, yawning and tickling have a shared function? Robert R. Provine's Curious Behavior explores mundane bodily actions overlooked by science.

YOU might not have noticed, but the face a person makes when they sneeze or yawn is remarkably similar to the one they pull at orgasm. Similarly, being prevented from completing any of these three actions once they are under way is extremely frustrating. Are they linked in their function?

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.

The most fascinating chapters involve descriptions of what happens when these behaviours become extreme. Take the 1962 outbreak of contagious laughter in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, which affected around a thousand people over several years. Then there is the story of a woman with an itch so severe she scratched through to her brain in her sleep.

Provine's investigations also reveal captivating insights into the mundane. Why are humans the only creatures to produce emotional tears, for instance, and what are they for? It may be that tears contain an ingredient that acts to soothe us, which is why we cry when we are sad. But the fact that teary eyes are universally recognised as a symbol of sadness suggests they have a role in communication, too. Then there is the finding that the scent of a woman's tears renders her less attractive to men. Until someone definitively works out what emotional tears are doing, it seems all we can really conclude is that tear-jerker movies are a bad choice for a date.

When it comes to yawning, Provine says there is scant evidence for the accepted wisdom that yawns give the brain an oxygen boost. But they have myriad other possible functions. As I experienced while reading the chapter, yawns are so contagious that just thinking about them is enough to set some people off. Such contagious yawns have been linked to empathy. Does this mean they have a social function? Might they synchronise group activity? Or do they just signal boredom?

These endless possibilities demonstrate how, while Provine's fun exploration of these topics raises interesting questions, it fails to answer many of them, simply because the science hasn't progressed far enough. So Provine encourages readers to start their own small-scale research.

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.

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