For Bob Provine, laughter is no laughing matter. In fact, the OSU alumnus could be one of the great buzz kills of his generation. As the world’s foremost researcher of laughter and other obscure, neglected behaviors, he’d like to remind those who revel in humanity’s ability to reason, its advances, capabilities, arts and speech, to not get too high on themselves. “People think of themselves as being conscious, rational beings in total control of their behavior,” says Provine, a 1965 psychology graduate who is now a neuropsychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “In fact, large amounts of our behavior are governed by irrational, unconscious processes. There’s only a thin veneer of civilization separating us from the animals.” Nowhere is that more evident than in what follows when someone makes a funny, says Provine, who has been studying what goes on behind our actions for more than 40 years. Contrary to popular belief, many species are laughing with us and not at us. (Google “The Rat Tickler.”) Provine has found the act of laughing isn’t so much a response to humor as it is about social relationships, a series of neuron firings, muscle contractions and vocalizations shaped by millennia of evolution.
Provine credits a rigorous psychology program at OSU and some arduous microbiology courses with giving him the tools to start an academic career that eventually led to the then-emerging field of neuroscience. 82
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“I think my greatest academic achievement was getting a ‘B’ in Edward Grula’s advanced microbiology class. It was probably the most challenging course I had up to that point. He was doing some serious research then and became the inspiration for my own lectures later.” The Tulsa native went from OSU to Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., where he studied the nervous system development of chicken embryos and, later, cockroaches, under two professors considered the founders of modern developmental neuroscience, Rita Levi-Montalcini and Viktor Hamburger. After getting his doctoral degree in 1971, he worked as a research professor at the university with joint appointments in psychology, biology and ophthalmology. In 1974, he was appointed to his current position and has published articles and books on everything from the development and evolution of bird flight to nerve fiber outgrowth and machine intelligence.
But there was once a time when Provine himself was governed by some impulses that, well, at least the powers that be at OSU considered irrational and inappropriate. He gets a dry chuckle these days when he looks back on his mischievous days in Stillwater. “Back then OSU had a dean of men and a dean of women,” he says. “They were the enforcers. I saw those people all the time, over such offenses as suggesting in a dorm newsletter that bowling should not be a major intramural sport. It was usually something they suspected that I was thinking or doing. They never caught me doing anything.” For example, as a student senator, dismayed by decaying Quonset huts that housed the campus’s intramural sports leagues, he joined an effort to hold a campus-wide student vote to approve a tuition increase that would pay for better facilities. Also, Parker Hall, his campus residence, was known as “Dorm B,” but Provine and his frequent accomplice, the author Brooks Mitchell, and a few of his neighbors started a movement to rename it after the famous Comanche Chief Quanah Parker. “Quanah was quite the hell raiser. Presumably he killed at least thirty-five people in battle. And everyone thought it was just great when he took up the ranching business instead of warfare. He was a Native American, an Oklahoman, and we were pretty impressed with him.” So one day they organized a vote, and a majority of dorm residents decided in favor of naming it after Parker. But OSU administration would have none of it.