Weird sigh-ence

We’re all still on a high from the recent Aussie Nobel Prize win, but it’s important not to overlook those other prestigious annual science awards, the IgNobel Prizes.

The 2011 IgNobel Prizes include a couple of Australian winners: Robert Pietrzak, David Darby and Paul Maruff shared the Medicine Prize with other international researchers for studying how needing to wee affects your concentration (see their article in Neurourology and Urodynamics); and Darryl Gwynne and David Rentz took out the Biology Prize for showing that male Buprestid beetles mistake beer bottles for female beetles (and see their article in the Australian Journal of Entomology).

Male Bupestrid beetle attempting to mate with a beer bottle (click to embiggen)
Male Bupestrid beetle attempting to mate with a beer bottle (Photo by Gwynne and Rentz)

There were many other worthy winners, but one that particularly caught my eye was the Psychology Prize, awarded to Norwegian psychologist Karl Halvor Teigen for his work trying to understand why people sigh (Karl Halvor Teigen 2008, “Is a sigh ‘just a sigh’? Sighs as emotional signals and responses to a difficult task”, Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 49–57).

Using a series of questionnaires and practical exercise, what he found was that, although most of us think of sighs as an expression of sadness, they’re actually more associated with a feeling of resignation, like giving up on a frustrating task.

Teigen performed this study to demonstrate to his students that not all questions have been answered. But curiously, since his work was published other researchers have also studied the cause of sighs, only from a physiological perspective (Vlemincxa E, Van Diesta I, Lehrerb PM, Aubertc AE, Van den Bergh O 2010, “Respiratory variability preceding and following sighs: A resetter hypothesis”, Biological Psychology, vol. 84, no. 1, pp. 82-87).

Using a very different method, Vlemincxa et al. got remarkably similar results. After a sequence of irregular breathing – also often associated with a stressful task – the experimental subjects sighed and returned to a more regular breathing pattern. Their hypothesis is that we sigh to “reset” our breathing after stress.

Think about this next time you, or someone else, sighs, and see if it agrees with these studies. And reflect on how right Karl Halvor Teigen really was: it’s still possible to find things in every day life, that we all do, but we don’t fully understand.


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