Vocabulary of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice

To the astonishment of no one, research scientists have determined that when humans really have to pee, they can’t think straight. 

The international team of scientists who conducted the study didn’t state it quite that succinctly; their formal conclusion was “Having an extreme urge to void exerted a large negative effect on attentional and working memory functions.”

The methodology was almost cruel; according to the study’s authors, healthy young adults “consumed 250 ml of water every 15 minutes until they could no longer inhibit voiding.”  I guess we should be grateful to these test subjects who were willing to expand their bladders and scientific knowledge at the same time.

That study received the 2011 Ig Nobel prize for Medicine, presented by the Annals of Improbable Research.  As you may recall, the intention of the Ig Nobels is to “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think.”

Among other winners this year was a study entitled “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise”.  As far as I’m concerned, they spoiled the suspense by putting the conclusion right there in the title, but they got the Physiology award anyway.

The 2011 Ig Nobel winner that I found most intriguing was honored in the Psychology category.  A Norwegian scientist named Karl Halvor Teigen published a summary of several studies under the title “Is a Sigh ‘Just a Sigh’?:  Sighs as Emotional Signals and Responses to a Difficult Task”.  In other words, Dr. Teigen is trying to understand why people sometimes exhale audibly.

He concluded that sighs usually have negative associations; that they are perceived as signs of sadness or defeat or frustration.  In one study, sighs were generated by having subjects attempt to solve difficult puzzles, causing futile attempts at finding a solution.

I’m no scientist, but from my experience sighs can also convey positive emotions like relief or contentment.  When you think about it, a sigh can be a non-verbal way to express any one of a very broad range of ideas, such as:

“After a hard day at work, this hot tub feels great.”  “I guess we should say goodnight, but I don’t want to go.”  “OK, I’ll explain it once more — try listening this time.”  “What’d that sign say?  Road work next 12 miles?”  “Oh man, I’m only on page 12 of this 200-page report about yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”  “Finally, the baby’s asleep.”  “I could swear I parked the car here in section B-7.”  “God, you’re beautiful.”

Every one of those thoughts can be conveyed by nothing more than a sigh, right?  Which leads me to believe that it is context that determines the meaning of any particular sigh.  It also suggests that the lyric from the song “As Time Goes By” is probably inaccurate:  a sigh is never just a sigh — it means something.

Hey, I sighed just now!  That probably means that I am deriving enjoyment from pondering a fascinating subject.  Or maybe it means I need to go to the bathroom.

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One response to “Vocabulary of Sighs

  1. I sigh every time I take a bite of something with truffle oil in it. Or blue cheese. Or both…

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