How sidewalk neuroscience illuminates important, yet frequently overlooked and underappreciated, aspects of human nature
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How sidewalk neuroscience illuminates important, yet frequently overlooked and underappreciated, aspects of human nature


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From the book : Evolutionary Psychology 11 issue 4 : 818-820.



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Published 01 January 2013
Reads 9
Language English


Evolutionary Psychology
www.epjournal.net2013. 11(4): 818820
Book Review
How Sidewalk Neuroscience Illuminates Important, yet Frequently Overlooked and Underappreciated, Aspects of Human Nature A review of Robert Provine,Curious Behavior. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012, 271 pp., US $24.95, ISBN # 9780674048515 (hardcover).Andrew C. Gallup, Psychology Department, SUNY College at Oneonta, Oneonta, New York , USA. Email: author). Craig F. Bielert, Psychology Department, SUNY College at Oneonta, Oneonta, New York , USA. A quick scan of the spine titles and authors at your local bookstore science section shelves might lead you to overlookCurious Behavior, since it is a small book. The authors name,Provinemight trigger a recollection of names such as Victor, however, Hamburger, Rita LeviMontalcini and Konrad Lorenz and you might as a consequence pick up the volume and page through it. This extra attention is worth the effort. Provines focus in this book is on what he terms,elemental human behaviors. Wellsteeped in the tradition of those such as Lorenz, he carries out contrasts between behaviors rather than specifically between phyla and thissmall science approach is refreshingly appropriate, effective and thought provoking. Most people fail to notice their unconscious bodily actions or behaviors, let alone think much about their underlying mechanisms, correlates or potential functions. But not Robert Provine. He has built a career from this type of scientific investigation, often discovering surprising results and practical insights. In his new book,Curious Behavior, he provides a highly accessible and entertaining overview of some of the least understood and commonly overlooked human behaviors. The book provides a detailed investigation into the nature of yawning, laughing, vocal crying, emotional tearing, coloration of the eyes (curiously not a behavior at all), coughing, sneezing, hiccupping, vomiting and nausea, tickling, itching and scratching, and farting and belching. Championing the approach of “sidewalk neuroscience”, a method of gaining insight into the functions of everyday behaviors through simple observations and demonstrations, Provine uses ingenuity and selfexperimentation to elucidate both the physiological and social properties of many of these peculiar behaviors. It is hard not to admire such a naturalistic and basic approach to science. To quote the beginning of his
Sidewalk neuroscience illuminates important aspects of human nature
chapter on the discussion and investigation of coughing,he states, “…with expectations so low, something of interest is bound to show up” (p. 104).Taking an ethological perspective, Provine sheds light on how we can reconstruct the evolution of various traits, helping to elucidate their functions. For instance, through an investigation of developmental sequence, one notices how vocal crying, a primitive form of communication, emerges at birth, while emotional tearing, a derived and uniquely human feature, does not develop until months after and thus must be a more recently evolved signal. The divergence of other traits, such as laughter, is also investigated through a comparative investigation of nonhuman primates. Furthermore, Provine highlights how useful neurobehavioral mechanisms are recycled during evolutionary history, meaning that seemingly disparate behaviors may be closer in form and function than traditionally believed. As an example, through a detailed classification and comparison, it is suggested that sneezing may be a modification of the existing motor act of yawning. Throughout the book, there is reference to a “behavioral keyboard”, which is featured in the appendix and presents the results of a creative experiment by Provine and his colleagues regarding the behaviors outlined. By recording the reaction times of 103 participants to consciously perform blinks, smiles, inhalations, “haha” sounds, coughs, laughs, yawns, sneezes, hiccups and cries (in ascending order), Provine reveals not only differences in voluntary control, but also differences inmechanism. He notes, “acts having very different response latencies involve different neurological processes” (p. 217). The “behavioral keyboard” is thought also to reveal differences in social role, since reaction times for smiles and saying“haha” are muthan those for laughs. A commonch faster feature to most (though not all) of these behaviors, aside from falling outside of conscious control, is their social influence. Throughout the book, Provine emphasizes our sociobiological programming, or collective “human herd behavior”, when describing phenomena such as contagious nature of yawning, laughing, crying, and scratching, as well as psychogenic effects such as tearing or illness (i.e., nausea and vomiting). The conclusion of the book comes with a chapter highlighting the understudied and underappreciated study of prenatal behavior. With the view that this represents lifes most critical stage, he draws attention to the importance of epigenetic processes at this point in development. Provine also provides compelling arguments for how much can be gained from a more thorough investigation of prenatal behaviors, since they often contrast with the postnatal world in terms of form, function and mechanism, and most are performed well in advance of the age of survival postnatally. No review would be complete without some discussion of the authors failings. Provines encyclopedic work on this small group of behaviors falls victim to the shortsightedness of the field of psychology. There are 21 pages of uptodate references, approximately 375 in number; the words,culture orcultural appear in seven only works of this assemblage, approximately 2% of the collection. How unfortunate the reality of this situation really is. Crosscultural work could easily expand the focus in this area in an exciting and enlightening way. Perhaps Provines work will stimulate others to probe into sociocultural frontiers. One very minor disappointment is the perfunctory and superficial treatment which theorgasm although the website reference may received, have been provided under the assumption that,a picture is worth a thousand words,and
Evolutionary PsychologyISSN 14747049 819Volume 11(4). 2013.
Sidewalk neuroscience illuminates important aspects of human nature
therefore lots of pictures can effectively cover this topic. In the end, Provine reminds us that there is still much to learn about some of the most basic action patterns of our everyday existence. He provides a compelling account of the importance of such study as well, referencing numerous social and medical applications to this research . This enlightening and thought provoking book is recom mended to all interested in behavior from an evolutionary lens, and will hopefully spur additional investigations pertaining to these infrequently studied behaviors. Once opened, the reader is taken on a roller coaster of topics, ranging from doomsday yawn s, to links between hiccups and female fertility, to how eye drops can be used as beauty aids, to using “tickle tests” for gaining insight into neurological or social abnormalities, to considering flatulence as a form of communication, to the strategic placement of laughs in conversation, to the limited neuromuscular facial behavior in emotional expressions, to speculating about the functional significance of photic sneezes (i.e., the tendency of roughly 25% of the population to sneeze in response to bright light). Please read with caution, however, as it is likely to be an eye opening, yawn interrupted, scratchfilled, tear jerking, laughoutloud, and nauseating experience.
Evolutionary PsychologyISSN 14747049Volume 11(4). 2013. 820