by EMILY MAKOWSKI
Neuroscientist Robert Provine, known for his groundbreaking research on common but mysterious human behavior such as laughter and yawning, died October 17 of complications from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to The Washington Post. He was 76.
Provine studied human social behaviors through innovative methods. In one 1993 study, his team observed people laughing outside of the lab setting, such as in shopping malls or while walking down the street. He found that, contrary to scientific belief of the time, most instances of laughter were based not in response to overt humor, but instead in an effort to strengthen social bonds, acknowledge a superior’s authority, or, when used negatively, to exclude someone from a group.
“Laughter is part of this universal human vocabulary. Everyone speaks this language. Just as birds of a given species all sing their species’ typical song, laughter is part of our own human song,” Provine once told NPR, according to the Post.
Born on May 11, 1943 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Provine showed an aptitude for science at a young age when he built telescopes in high school. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Oklahoma State University in 1965 and PhD in psychology from Washington University in St. Louis in 1971. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Psychonomic Society, and wrote two popular science books: Laughter: A Scientific Investigation in 2000 and Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond in 2012.
“Provine’s research on topics such as yawning, laughter, tickling, and emotional tears provided fascinating insights into the fundamental building blocks of human social behavior,” according to a memorial on the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s (UMBC) website. Provine taught at UMBC for four decades before becoming a professor emeritus in 2013.
“His approach was just amazing. It was different than what pretty much anyone was doing,” Robert Spencer, one of Provine’s former PhD students and currently the chief of neuropsychology at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, tells The Scientist. “He was opening up a whole new set of methods, things that he would refer to as ‘sidewalk neuroscience,’ which was essentially ethology as applied to humans. And he answered questions you just can’t answer in synthetic lab situations,” he says.
Spencer remembers Provine as having a quirky personality, a distinctive Oklahoma accent, and a lab that “looked like a museum,” adding that it was “just full of equipment that he had built himself” in order to conduct experiments. In addition, he had many interests outside of the lab, such as saxophone playing, race car driving, and martial arts.
He is survived by his wife of 23 years, his son and daughter from his first marriage, and three grandchildren.