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Empathy and Yawning - Lessons from Chimpanzees

By Yvette Vignando - 14th April 2011

There are certain topics I often wonder about - one of them is: why yawning is contagious. I remember reading a theory suggesting that yawning allows more oxygen into our lungs and the contagious response is because our brain automatically assumes that if someone else is yawning, there's a shortage of oxygen and we need to respond accordingly! Could that be true? It was the best explanation I'd read ... until today.

My colleagues at 6 Seconds shared an interesting article today on the Science Blogs website about the possible connection between yawning and our levels of empathy. So just a quick reminder - empathy refers to our ability to pick up on the emotions of another person (and to some extent, understand or relate to those emotions).

And in this research, it was found that chimpanzees responded with "contagious" yawning much more often, when shown yawning video of chimpanzees that were part of their "in group".  Together with other research, it's proposed that the more empathetic we are, or the more we know the person yawning, the more likely we are to "catch" the yawn. Apparently there's research indicating that people with certain conditions that tend to include low empathy (autism for example) are less likely to be affected contagiously by another person's yawn. Also, people who perform better at tasks that require empathy are more prone to the contagious yawn.

As I'm fascinated by anything to do with emotional intelligence, and empathy is at the core of this "intelligence", I love this kind of research. If you're just as fascinated, check out the article which includes a cute video of the yawning chimpanzees. "Sleepy or Empathetic - What Does Yawning Mean?"

So do you have strong empathy skills and are you a more contagious yawner than others? Perhaps this has never occurred to you?

P.S. Apparently contagious yawning has been observed in domesticated dogs, chimpanzees, stumptail macaques, gelada baboons, but so far, not the hippopotamus.

image freedigitalphotos.net Rick Budai

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