By Bernard Levy
My dog, Cheddar, a golden retriever of immense patience and loyalty, sighs. He sighs just like a human being. He does it all the time. He let out a good one last week about 4:30 in the morning.
I have never owned a dog that sighed. It’s a new experience for me. It gives Cheddar a human quality I never knew dogs achieved. I asked my wife whether she ever had a dog that sighed. Her response: “My horse, Cooper, does it all the time.” This remark is typical of a husband-wife conversation. One spouse asks a question; the other offers a response that doesn’t answer the question. No matter.
Kathy tells me that a horse sigh denotes relaxation. However, Cheddar’s sigh seemed like a response to a disturbing dream thought.
I decided to look into the matter of sighing in greater detail. I reasoned that if sighing can express relaxation and contentment, it can also communicate frustration, exasperation and resignation. Not being an expert in the field, I interviewed a world-renowned sighing expert who lived in a major city close to my home. Herbert Uttering, Ph.D., was the man and overjoyed for an opportunity to express his views. Apparently, there is not a great outcry for his services.
We met in his office, a dusty room with books and periodicals heaped everywhere. He cleared a seat and offered some ancient coffee. I began my interview.
“Thank you for meeting with me today. Before our telephone conversation, I never realized there were experts on the subject of sighing.”
He sighed. “Not experts, Mr. Levy, I am the expert in the world. I tried to get others interested in the subject, but they refused. Many of them, after talking with me, wouldn’t even shake my hand good-bye.” He sighed again.
“Very interesting. I really would like to know more about why people sigh. And, if you have any information, I’d like to know why animals sigh, too. Our dog and horse sigh all the time.”
I waited, but he didn’t sigh.
“It’s a very interesting subject. I didn’t start out this way, you know. I was a very promising young scientist. My major was behavior, but the university was on a very limited budget, and only cadavers were available. Not much could be learned from them regarding human behavior, but, if given the right conditions, they attracted mice. It was then that our experiments became lively and produced results.” He sighed, this time with a smile on his face.
He continued. “We had a very kind and creative professor who, when presented with lemons, made lemonade. He instructed the class to round up the mice and devised experiments whereby, under controlled conditions, some would be allowed to play freely in a large area while others were confined to a very small area. With amplifying and monitoring devices, we were able to record their responses to prolonged periods of activity for one group and inactivity for the other.”
“Professor, if the university had limited funds, how did it get the amplifiers and monitors? Don’t they cost a lot of money?”
“An excellent point, Mr. Levy. My professor came from a family whose business was exports, imports and bartering, real Yankee traders. He bartered the cadavers for the equipment we needed with med school students. A good deal.” He paused. “Where was I? Oh, in both instances, audible sighing was detected. Our first ten tests proved conclusively that the mice who played freely sighed to express contentment and sometimes relaxation. The confined mice sighed to vent their boredom, frustration, and resignation.
“Two of us were chosen to write a paper for the Journal of Experimentation with Mice, and needless to day, it was well received. The medical establishment was amazed to discover that mice sigh. And…”
“You mean they really made a sighing sound, like humans do?”
“Well, not exactly, but it is basically the same thing. It’s more of a peep-sigh rather than a sigh-sigh, but it’s a sigh, nevertheless. And we didn’t stop experimenting. We pushed the envelope another notch,” he said, mixing metaphors and coughing.
“Professor, was that a sigh?”
“No, you idiot, that was a cough,” he said, grabbing a glass of water. “We then conducted experiments with cats attempting to catch the mice. We controlled the environment so the cats never caught the mice, and recorded the cats’ behavior at the end of our tests. They clearly were upset at their failure, and we saw active tails everywhere. However, they also distinctly sighed.”
“Now these were real sighs, like humans make, right?”
“Well, not exactly. They were more like meow-sighs, but it was clear they were sighs of frustration and exasperation. The mice, on the other hand, after reaching safety exhibited sighs of relief. I believe the correct scientific phrase would be a ‘whew!’ sigh.
“We found that the more experiments we conducted, the more pronounced the sighing became. If funding hadn’t been cut short, I believe we would have eventually recorded an almost-human sigh. However, the grant money ran out on this cat and mouse project, and we had to get fresh grant money for our next scheduled experiment using dogs.
“We had a heck of a grant writer, and we received two $125,647.45 grants, one from the National Endowment for Living Things (NELT) and the other from the Huckheiser/Phistelblommer Foundation. Wonderful people. In any event, we ran controlled experiments in which dogs of various breeds attempted to catch the cats, the subjects of our previous experiment. We made real progress in this one. Boy, did we make progress!” The professor heaved a clearly audible sigh.
“Those dogs gave the cats a real run for the money. My wife soundly chastised me for the condition of the house after we conducted several off-campus experiments. The cats had learned from the mice the art of escaping from predators, and the dogs were never successful. It was clear that we were working up the chain. The cats exhibited more pronounced sighs, displaying the same feelings the mice had shown when they were the prey. The dogs, however, were much more stoic than the cats had been, and their sighs were not only audible, they were even human-like.”
“You mean like Cheddar, my golden retriever?”
“Sir, you are not talking to some schlock scientist. There was no controlled experiment in your house, at least not one that I observed. I can only communicate to you what we students scientifically observed. The dogs exhibited sighs of both contentment and frustration. The cats clearly exhibited sighs of relief. Unfortunately, the funds ran out in three months, and we had to discontinue the experiment.
“However, our grant writer, Zelda Selma Alma Gustafson, hit pay dirt again. This time she successfully wrote a grant for $172,500.25 which the Consolidated Amalgamated Catchers and Collectors Union – CACCU – Locals 517 and 692, funded. The Emma and Jonas Keysterhofer Foundation matched it. We then took the next logical step, namely, using dogcatchers to catch the dogs that tried to catch the cats that tried to catch the mice. Hmmm, sounds like a children’s story, doesn’t it? But, this was no child’s play. We were serious students – budding scientists – and we knew we were onto something big. The dogcatchers were marginally successful in catching dogs; they failed 49.6 percent of the time We discovered and recorded new and different sighs. It appears that humans, as in the case of most dogcatchers, emit a sigh both before and after the controlled experiments. why, I even have a couple of them on tape. Care to listen?”
Professor Uttering started up the tape, and I heard “Sigh. Sigh….sigh…sigh…sigh. Sigh...sigh.”
The professor stopped the tape and turned to me. “That was from the cab of their vehicle prior to the dogcatchers discovering dogs on the loose. Apparently, dogcatchers sit around in their vehicles sighing. It’s difficult to ascertain what behavior these sighs indicate, but I am told they are sighs of both contentment and boredom. Let’s listen to some more.”
And listen we did. The scientists had placed recording devices on the dogcatchers. All kinds of utterances were picked up, including, “Let’s go, Tom, see that one over there? You take that one, I’ll take the one to the right…puff…puff…puff; come here, you little scamp. Come on, come on, don’t bite me now. I don’t want to hurt you…sigh…sigh…sigh; I’ve got this one. Do you have yours?” “Yeah, Joe, I’ve got this one over here. sigh…sigh…sigh; Let’s get the mutts to the truck. Come on you little buggers. Come on, in you go, in you go. Easy, easy.” “Yelp, yelp, yelp! Owww! Owww! Arf! Arf! Arf!” “Sigh…sigh…sigh” (apparently human), “Arf! Sigh. Arf! Sigh” (apparently dog).
“This was a much more complicated experiment, and it took lengthy review and editing to identify the types and levels of behavior indicated by the sighing. But again, grant money ran out. Since humans were part of the experiment, we could not publish in the Journal of Experimentation with Mice’s sister publication, the Journal of Experimentation with Animals, but we did find a publication that would adapt our scientific results, namely the Journal of Experimental Yammer or JOEY, if you prefer. We had some rave reviews. Some time has past, but I’m hopeful that Gustafson will be able to capitalize on our success for more grant money.”
“Would you consider extending the string of connected experiments and perform one with someone or something pursuing the dogcatchers?” I carefully asked.
Professor Uttering paused a moment, stroked his chin, and pensively responded, “W…e…l…l, we hadn’t considered that.” Then, a light bulb appeared over his head, and he turned to me sternly, “That would be silly! Are you trying to make fun of our experiments?”
“No, no siree, not me,” I hastily retreated. Quickly changing the subject, I continued my interview with a different tack. “Is sighing contagious” you know, like sneezing. I’ve always been curious about the science of sneezing. I’ve even observed that the sneezer doesn’t have to be human in order for a human to catch it. Any thoughts about sighing in this respect, Professor Uttering?”
“Golly, you’ve hit upon an excellent subject for experimentation and exploration. In fact, as soon as you leave, I’m going to scour our past analyses for any connection. I’ve done some preliminary reading on sneezing, and it’s a fascinating subject. Reflex conduct, whether voluntary or involuntary, has always interested me.
“You know, Mr. Levy, I’ve done some more work on the degrees of sighs – sighmanship, if you will. In fact, as a result of the dogcatcher-dog experiments, I’ve developed a scale of sighing.”
With that remark he squeezed over to a covered easel. Demonstrating an uncharacteristic flare, he whipped away the cover to reveal a chart of sighing.
“As you can see, there are three negative, one neutral, and three positive reactions.”
He then read aloud the seven positions of sighing. In the order of the most to least negative, centered by a neutral sigh, and ending with least to most positive, they were exasperation, frustration, resignation, boredom, relief, contentment, and relaxation. He was darn proud of his achievement. I had to comment with less than a full journalistic approach.
“Terrific, Professor Uttering. That’s positively amazing. Very profound.”
The good professor came to life with my remark. He beamed. His gratitude was evident, and I heard no sighs. If I were less than a serious journalist, I would have described his reaction as giddy and childlike.
I thought, enough of this. I had to ask the final question: “Professor, how can you pinpoint the exact reason for sighing in your subjects? How can you determine the behavioral results with such exactitude?”
I knew immediately that I had done harm. Somewhat stunned by my question, he made his way back to his chair and cautiously framed his answer. His head was bowed as he responded, and I knew I had gone to a place I shouldn’t have.
“Although we scientists are dedicated to scientific inquiry and experimentation, we are human, too. There are limits to what pure science can do. (Sigh.) There are times when we must fall back on our experiences and feelings. We don’t know everything. (Sigh.) I had to make certain assumptions and, darn it, educated guesses played a part in my conclusions. Sure, I observed the demeanor and behavioral attitude of my subjects, but I had to make judgment calls as well.”
He pointed proudly to his chart and said, “It looks correct; it feels correct; that’s my absolutely best scientific guess.” He sighed very deeply, and then sighed again.
Our good-byes were cordial, but formal and still. It was as if I had extracted some deep-seated, dark secret that probably should not have been revealed. I stepped carefully through his maze of materials and entered the outside, nonscientific world once more.
Trying to apply what I had learned, I attempted to pinpoint the types of sighs Professor Uttering exhibited after his last remarks. And then it hit me. A sigh can be a combination of types. There may be pure, focused sighs, but I believe that his sighs were combinations of resignation and relief – or possibly exasperation and relaxation. Of course, those are my best journalistic guesstimates.