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Curiouser and Curiouser

A review of the new book Curious Behavior, which delves into the quirks of human conduct.

By | August 23, 2012

image: Curiouser and Curiouser Curious Behavior, by Robert R. Provine, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore CountyPublisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (August 31, 2012)

Know Thyself, the Ancient Greek aphorism goes. But after thousands of years of contemplating and studying the human condition, it is shocking how little attention has been paid to our most common, and in some ways defining, behaviors.

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.

Many of the investigations are part of Provine’s own, pioneering studies—we read about much of the research from the horse’s mouth, and skeptics are encouraged to conduct their own “sidewalk neuroscience” experiments. This is a refreshing reminder of how science can be done on a small budget, without elaborate equipment. The research includes controlled laboratory studies, observations of non-human primates, interviews with other scientists, and much sleuthing through the literature. But there are also urban safaris. Often with students in tow, Provine stalks modern Homo sapiens in their natural habitat—the local mall, a party, an office, or the classroom—revealing new aspects of human behavior hidden in plain sight. The approach is reminiscent of the classical ethology studies Lorenz, Tinbergen, and von Frisch, but in this case the ethologist looks into a metaphoric mirror—viewing instinctive human behavior as an alien might.

We learn that we sometimes behave as herd animals, with our eyes often communicating more than our mouths. We “catch” contagious yawns, laughter, and sometimes scratching, crying, and even vomiting. Tears are revealed as a uniquely human form of social communication without which sad human faces can be ambiguous. Most laughter occurs in the absence of humor, but pant-pant vocalizations by playful primates reveal the likely origins of this social signal.

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. It also includes important lessons for students and young investigators. One is to “appreciate straight, jargon-free talk about everyday things, and abhor florid neurologizing and biologizing, the dressing up of behavioral accounts in the trappings of neurology and biology to provide the illusion of depth and substance.”

In a world where there is an increasing gulf between the public and scientists, Provine leads by example with straightforward science communication. Other lessons he shares are timeless, harking back to the renowned neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal in his 1897 Advice to Young Investigators, such as the pitfall of thinking that all key problems in science have been solved, or the importance of avoiding “instrument addicts”—those with impressive machinery but few ideas. This book is a must-have for any connoisseur of human behavior, whether studying in a classroom or from a barstool.

Kenneth C. Catania is a Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University.

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Anonymous

August 24, 2012

What could be curiouser than the conceptualization that natural selection improves fitness, when we have so many humans in criminal institutions, so many pedophiles, so many sexual deviants, so many powerful corporate managers committing blatant, flagrant fraud without much mor ethan an occasional slap to the back of the hand, while robbing, for example, the U. S. housing market of trillions (with a t) of dollars, and bringing about
prolific unemployment and diminution of the U. S. middle class, with repercussions throughout the entire world.
Where in the hell is natural selection when we need it to make our species better off, rather than racked with increasing detriment?
Perhaps the answer will be, from our brilliant evolutionary theorists, that all natural selection does is assure that the the "winners" of any contest are able to have more offspring than the losers -- such as the average U. S. citizen or the U. S. middle class.
But, then again, if less than one percent of the U. S. population is wracking up an increasing portion of the wealth flowing away from the rest of the citizenry, maybe they are breeding like flies.
Nahhh.
We must not worry. Natural selection will fix eveyrthing, as it always has..
( : > )

Avatar of: Guest

Anonymous

August 24, 2012

As it did for the dinosaurs and is now doing for the tiger and the norwale.

Avatar of: Guest

Anonymous

August 24, 2012

Precisely, if the insinuation is that mankind does not have the power to destory all species, on the way to self-destruction. Even our brilliantly corrupt and opportunistic politicians and walk-on-water CEOs who funnel back illegal profits to them legally and otherwise.
Precisely, when we reflect that even a five year nuclear winter, and an Earth too irradiated to support much life, would not knock out bacteria in rocks deep down below the surface.
Here's to the life survivors, be they cock roaches or be they bacteria.
Life will go on for millinia to come, although it remains to be seen whether or to what extent human life. Perhaps Earth life will heal and repeat something akin to the Cambrian explosion.
There IS hope, afterall!
Here's to the fittest!
(:>)

Avatar of: Malardj

Malardj

Posts: 4

August 24, 2012

You might be interested in the following book by Konrad Lorentz.
http://www.scribd.com/doc/3447...

Avatar of: Amy Hendrickson

Amy Hendrickson

Posts: 3

August 25, 2012

It's not all of humanity that is causing the huge problems we face, only
a small number, maybe as small as several hundred thousand.

The mystery is why the rest of us let them oppress, take advantage of, and endanger
the vast body of humanity. How dare they dump radioactive material into
the atmosphere we all share? or raise the atmospheric temperature for
their profit, while the CO2 accumulation turns the oceans more acidic,
endangering our source of Oxygen, the hard working plankton? Or
play with bioweapons which might escape the lab, never to be returned,
and to interact with the microbes et al outside the lab to completely
uncertain results?

What are we prepared to do about it?

Avatar of: Baron P

Baron P

Posts: 7

August 26, 2012

"the dressing up of behavioral accounts in the trappings of neurology and biology to provide the illusion of depth and substance.â€쳌
That's all very well, but without some insight into the biological purposes that behaviors serve, you end up with a lot less of the depth and substance that might have been available to another science writer. (Like Zimmer, for example, who hasn't suffered in popularity by excessive brilliance.)

Avatar of: Alan Silverman

Alan Silverman

Posts: 1

August 31, 2012

I've built an Internet based Truth Machine. http://building-a-truth-machin...

Alan

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