Curious About Us

Published: Jun 13, 2013
The Science of Laughter, Time Magazine
(The Science of Laughter, Time Magazine)

UMBC professor of psychology Robert Provine’s “small science” makes big strides in explaining human behavior.

By Chelsea Haddaway

Twenty five right-handed UMBC students sit cross-legged in their chairs in a classroom, shoes and socks removed, with the ankle of one leg resting on the knee of the other. Slowly, they stroke the soles of each foot with their fingertips, recording what they feel using first one hand, then the other.

Yawn imageThe students are testing an idea that professor of psychology Robert Provine stumbled on as he soaped his own foot in the shower one day. It tickled more than he thought it should, especially given the widespread popular belief that one cannot tickle oneself.

The students performing this experiment eventually helped confirm Provine’s hypothesis, getting the strongest urge to giggle when tickling their left foot with their right hand.

Self-tickling might not seem the stuff of serious research. But discovering that one half of our body treats the other half as relatively alien is definitely surprising. And it is exactly the kind of discovery that has propelled Provine to prominence as a scientist and an author.

Provine has also proved that “small science” – or “sidewalk neuroscience,” as he sometimes calls it – is an ideal way to do research at a primarily undergraduate university like UMBC. His investigations are based largely on observations of everyday human behavior – and they can be conceived and executed quickly and with relatively untrained research assistants.  No large grants or pricey equipment required.

“If you insist on more equipment,” Provine quips, “buy a stopwatch.”

Small science doesn’t mean small discoveries, however. In a steady flood of scholarly papers and well-received books for general audiences such as Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping and Beyond (2012) and Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (2001), Provine challenges (and sometimes confirms) things we think we know about everyday behavior.

The New York Times observed that Curious Behavior “begs you to continue where curiosity leads you, down both the boulevards and the back alleys of science” and The Wall Street Journal declared it “charmingly written and profoundly informative.” Library Journal even named Curious Behavior one of the best books of 2012.

His successful books have also made Provine – who will become an emeritus professor this month – a sought-after public speaker and public intellectual, turning up in roles ranging from a keynote speaker at the International Brain Bee (a high school neuroscience competition) to a consultant for an exhibit on “What Makes Us Smile?” at the American Visionary Art Museum.

hiccup image

In particular, the publication of Laughter also made Provine a leading authority on what tickles our funny bones. One important thing he’s discovered is that humor has its foundations in our relationships. Stand-up comedy might be hard to master, for instance, because a speaker tends to laugh about 46 percent more than his or her audience does. And gender matters, too. Women laugh more than men in conversation.

“Opportunities [for research] lie in these behaviors that have always been in front of us but have never received the examination that they should. What we’re doing is taking these behaviors seriously,” Provine says.

Provine has also spoken four times at one of America’s bastions of big science – the Goddard Space Flight Center – in the center’s Scientific Colloquium series. Dave Thompson, an astrophysicist at Goddard who chairs the colloquium committee, says that the UMBC professor’s small science approach (and impressive results) have a lot to teach those who work on a grander operational scale.

“There are things you can do with the human brain that are better than what can be done with a machine,” says Thompson. “People like Provine have helped to stimulate this idea that you do not have to be a specialist who has built a multimillion dollar piece of hardware to do good science.”

Robert Provine was a neuroscientist even before various branches of research on the brain and its development coalesced under that name.

As a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at Washington University in St. Louis in the 1960s, he also took classes in biology, physiology, anatomy, and even electrical engineering to satisfy his growing interest in the field.  He developed a subspecialty of neuroembryology on the way to his doctorate, and several of his advisors were biologists.

When Provine joined UMBC’s faculty in 1974, he was using chick embryos in most of his experiments on the development and evolution of the nervous system. He wanted to give his undergraduate students opportunities to participate in that research, but the work was technologically advanced and it took a year of preparation for them to contribute in a meaningful way.

So Provine began thinking about how to enlist students in research on the brain in other ways. It was a quest that led Provine to the “small science” on which he’s made his name.

“I came to the conclusion that if you looked at the right behavior in the right way, you don’t have to use animal models,” Provine recalls. “You can get the same kind of rigor and insights by looking at the ongoing behavior of normal people.”

Take yawning, for example, an everyday event that Provine tackles in Curious Behavior. We yawn when we’re tired, right?  Yawns are triggered by a lack of oxygen in the air, yes? And everyone knows that yawns are contagious.

Actually our yawns can be a bit more complicated than these common assumptions. “Folklore is a good place to start our research because it’s based on age-old observations about behavior,” Provine observes. “Sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.”

Some of Provine’s research confirms that folk wisdom. We do yawn when we’re about to fall asleep. But we also yawn immediately upon waking. The bookend nature of yawns makes Provine wonder: Do yawns mark a transition state between waking and sleep in both directions?

That second assumption about yawning is completely false, he continues. Yawns have no relationship to the air around you. But contagious yawning is definitely a reality. Provine’s experiments indicate that if you see someone yawn, or even read about yawning, you’re more likely to yawn as well. (Are you yawning yet?)

“If we look back and examine this closely, something really important is going on,” Provine observes. “This means that we imitate other kinds of things that we see.”

Provine speculates that the development of contagious behavior (we also are likelier to laugh, cough and itch when we see others do so) could be part of what helped us develop one of our most deeply human traits: empathy. He even muses that deficits in these mechanisms may be involved in the social pathologies of autism, pointing to other recent studies showing that autistic children tend to be less likely to “catch” yawns.

The discoveries that Provine has made through observation have not gone unnoticed by prominent colleagues. “We are surrounded by evidence about human behavior, and should put it to use,” says Steven Pinker, who studies and writes about language as a professor of psychology at Harvard University – and like Provine is the author of books for general audiences.  “He is the only scientist I know of who is studying many aspects of human behavior that fascinate most laypeople but which are not standard topics in the field.”

“There’s been an age-old interest in some of these behaviors, but they never prompted serious science,” agrees Provine.  “My undergraduate research students and I have been able to take advantage of this neglect.  Some of the seminal work on yawning, laughing and other behaviors was done right here in Math/Psych Room 507b.”

Indeed, those undergraduate research students are the engine behind Provine’s uncommonly productive lab. The UMBC professor publishes papers in scientific journals nearly as quickly as he can write them, and often these undergraduates are listed as co-authors.

hahaha imageKurt Krosnowski ’08, psychology, a graduate student in biological sciences at UMBC studying how animal noses sniff out pheromones, was one of those undergraduate researchers. He traces his interest in the nostrils directly back to the first class he took with Provine: “Sensation and Perception.”

Krosnowski says Provine’s lectures were no mere elaborations on the textbook, but were always weaving in anecdotes about his years working in research, consulting for major corporations, and fervent dabbling in music, art, and astrology. Though he had started out as an engineering major, Krosnowski was so inspired by the course that he approached Provine about joining his lab team.

At first, Provine said no.

“Five or ten times more people indicate an interest in joining my team than are invited,” explains Provine.  In order to ensure that his lab is staffed with students who can contribute and work independently, Provine is extremely selective, tapping only students who excel in his class or possess a research skill that is urgently needed in the lab.

Marcello Cabrera ’12, psychology, got his chance by knowing the right software.  “He made an announcement one class and asked if anyone knew how to use Photoshop,” Cabrera says. “I began informally working on one of his projects that involved using Photoshop to add artificial tears to images. At the same time, I was doing very well in his class, and, before the semester was over, he asked me to join his lab team.”

Krosnowski persisted and eventually won a place on Provine’s team, studying reaction times for common behaviors: If you ask someone to cry, can they do it on command? How long does it take? What about sneezing, coughing, laughing, yawning?  He also worked with Provine on a study of how seeing someone’s tears affects our perception of their sadness.

“That was the most fulfilling for me because I had a very direct hand in getting it up and running.  [Provine] wasn’t like ‘here, do this for me.’ We had a very sincere conversation about how we think this should work,” he says.

Now that Krosnowski is working towards a Ph.D., those conversations with Provine are paying off. “He was my first experience having a peer relationship with a professor,” he observes. “Now that I’m in graduate school, they’re training you to have peer relationships with all of your professors,” he says.

Cabrera has also found his time in Provine’s lab a boon, despite the fact that his career has taken him away from psychology and into the nonprofit world. “I took lots of great classes at UMBC,” he recalls, “but I don’t think I learned as much in the classroom as I did in the lab. Working on these projects with the team taught me about how to solve problems that don’t have easy or straightforward solutions.”

Both Krosnowski and Cabrera are also among the select group of student researchers who have co-authored papers with Provine in a range of publications, including Human Nature, Ethology, and Evolutionary Psychology. Krosnowski is a co-author on two of Provine’s publications, and Cabrera’s name is on a series of papers, some still awaiting publication, on the whites of the eyes.

Provine says that students who reach that level of collaboration are intricately involved in not only the execution, but the design and analysis of an experiment.  “Co-authoring a paper is an a-ha moment, because that’s a gold standard for having done something,” Provine says.

Provine takes an effusive, almost fatherly, pride in his undergraduate researchers. Many of them have moved on to careers in psychology and other professions. “I thank a generation of mostly undergraduate students who contributed to this work,” he wrote in the acknowledgements of Curious Behavior. “All are exceptional in their own ways.”

He isn’t surprised that so many of his students achieve success after graduating. Provine believes that UMBC is the ideal place for budding undergraduate scientists to get the experience they’ll need to move to the next level.

“You can get a good undergraduate education a lot of places, but what you can do uniquely well at UMBC is not only learn about science, but actually do science,” he says. “Studying science without doing science is like going to the conservatory and studying the flute from someone who doesn’t play it.  They can talk about the history of the flute and the theory of the flute, but if you want to study the flute, you need to study with someone who actually plays the damn flute.”

And speaking of musical instruments, Provine decided that he’d be devoting a bit more time to the saxophone (and to his other hobby, painting) starting in June, when he will retire from full-time teaching and writing at UMBC.

“I’ll have a work schedule more like that of my Ivy League colleagues,” he quips.

While his own paintings of neurons adorn the walls of his lab, Provine says he hasn’t held a paintbrush in years. And the saxophonist who fondly recalls playing in a jazz quartet has barely had time to practice his instrument as he’s labored over his busy schedule of research and writing.

“It’s a sad business,” Provine says. “I’m a musician that doesn’t play and a painter that doesn’t paint.”

Provine will continue to follow his small science research wherever new discoveries lead him, however. As an emeritus professor, he will teach seminar-style courses at UMBC on neuroanatomy and on the topics tackled in Curious Behavior, and continue to recruit students for research.

Indeed, his next project is a new vein of research based on his discoveries concerning the whites of the eye and emotional tearing. In addition to his undergraduate collaborators, Provine will also recruit engineering students into the lab to help him develop instrumentation to look at the associated physiological changes in the eyes.

Provine believes there are no end of curious human behaviors to observe, and he wants to be part of that process of discovery for as long as he can.

“My mentors set a high standard for longevity in science, working to the end,” he wrote in a letter to his colleagues announcing his retirement. “Viktor Hamburger lived to 100 and Rita Levi-Montalcini, the oldest Nobel Laureate, made it to 103. Jerry Lettvin only made it to 91, but left an admonition that guides my thinking: ‘If your research does not change everything, why bother doing it?’”

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