Sighing on radio

Did you know that babies sigh? And that animals do – mice, to the tune of 40 sighs a minute?   

These, and other fascinating facts about this involuntary emission of breath, were included in a half-hour Radio 4 documentary produced by senior lecturer Clare Jenkins and aired just before Christmas.  

The Sigh, presented by award-winning poet Imtiaz Dharker [pictured right], looked at the history of the sigh and its role in literature, music, religion – and life. Among the contributors was Dr Lynne Barker, a cognitive neuro-scientist at Sheffield Hallam University.

“Babies sigh more or less from birth,” she said. “They sigh a lot, probably for the same reason that mice sigh. Mice sigh because their heartbeat is really fast, so they’re trying to regulate their rapid cardiorespiration system. And babies sigh because this system has not matured yet and their breathing is variable and can be unpredictable. So sighing is part of the resetting mechanism.”                             

According to Dr Barker [above left], the main emotions represented by sighing are relief, resignation and frustration – as well as desire and sexual pleasure.

Dr Hannah Newton of the University of Reading traced the history of the sigh in literature, while Dr Naya Tsentourou of Exeter University looked at its meanings in religion: “A lot of religious authors refer to ‘sighs and groans unutterable’, that may not be heard by us but can communicate our message to the divine… You can be saying a million words and never be heard, but sighs and groans are the safest type of rhetoric in one’s prayer.”

Classical pianist Professor Peter Hill, meanwhile, explained the role of the sigh in music – from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas through to The Beatles and Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.

The programme, which Clare produced for her independent radio company Pennine Productions, received wide interest, being selected as a Pick of the Week in The Times, Telegraph, Guardian and The Spectator magazine.

You can listen to it on BBC iplayer: