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Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond

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.


Selected Reviews:

“Pardon Me! A fearless Look at Our Bodies’ Mundane Functions….With its many facts and anecdotes and unexpected stories, it begs you to continue where curiosity leads you, down both the boulevards and the back alleys of science.” – The New York Times

“Charmingly written and profoundly informative….teaches the art of observation and methods of interpretation…each chapter offering up enlightening and unexpected findings….marvelous….’small science’ at its best.” – Wall Street Journal

 “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry… explores the human body’s odd outbursts, from hiccups to sobs and beyond.” – People

“Disarmingly enchanting.” Times (London)

“Clear, entertaining, and (most importantly) data-driven accounts of familiar yet overlooked human quirks…written with humor and wit…includes important lessons for students and young investigators…This book is a must have for any connoisseur of human behavior, whether studying in a classroom or from a barstool.” – The Scientist

“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….he explains the origins of some of our most prevalent, but often overlooked, human behaviors.” “Recommended” –Scientific American

“An exercise in ‘small science’–some of it speculative, all of it fascinating.” – Nature

“Provine’s investigations reveal captivating insights into the mundane.” – New Scientist

“Engaging and seriously amusing.” – The Chronicle of Higher Education

“A trove of insights.” – The Boston Globe (1)

“Robert R. Provine finds revelations in yawns, tears, laughs, sneezes, and other instinctive human behavior….a trove of insights about our evolutionary origins and social programming.” “Very entertaining.”  “Amiable guide through occasionally impolite territory.” – The Boston Globe (2)

“Beautifully written..constantly surprising..charmingly funny…” – The Guardian (UK)

 “Often fascinating, take on our most curious behaviors.” – Publishers Weekly

“Recommended.” –Choice

“Delve into….innate acts that help reveal how the brain works.” – Science News

“Fascinating…helps us gain a fresh perspective on the human herd..” – Spirituality & Practice

“Engrossing account…with added whimsy for sweetening. Suitable for all ages.” – Sacramento Book Review

“Invigorating…” American Journal of Human Biology

“Enlightening and thought provoking..a roller coaster of topics….” – Evolutionary Psychology

“Nothing human is alien to Professor Provine.” – Finnish Medical Journal

“Outstanding.” – American Association of University Presses

“Excellent survey.” – Quarterly Review of Biology