Curiouser and Curiouser

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

Aug 23, 2012
Kenneth C. Catania

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.