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Monkey See, Monkey Do

Apr 06, 2015 08:10AM ● By Jennifer Neys

By Julie Ross

I was in the middle of telling a long, rather detailed story, when my listening friend unsuccessfully attempted to stifle a yawn. This was apparently my cue to realize I was droning on and for heaven’s sake to stop talking already. Well, I did stop, but mainly because it became impossible to continue due to the onslaught of an expansive yawn of my own. We’ve all experienced this urge to yawn when we see other yawning humans. Yawns are contagious. But what exactly is the point of this weird behavior?

I’m sure you will be interested to learn that my yawning response aligns with recent research on chimpanzees and bonobos, which suggests contagious yawning is more common among friends and family than among strangers. Researchers state it is not just a simple case of “monkey see, monkey do” mimicry, but can be a display of potentially life-saving empathy. (Yes, I know chimpanzees and bonobos are technically apes, not monkeys, but “ape see, ape do” is not a known idiom. Work with me here.)

Yawning draws in a large amount of cool air, which finds its way via the circulatory system to the brain. And a cool brain is an alert brain. So, humans and other primates have evidently evolved with this group-yawning technique to keep everyone in their social group keenly vigilant.

Dogs have been shown to display contagious yawning behavior when exposed to human yawns. Of course, you dog owners out there are not surprised by this. Dogs are notorious students of our every move. We can teach them to smile; no surprise they also yawn when we do. 

Researchers at the University of Tokyo were not satisfied with the ambiguity of human-to-dog yawn contagion. Do dogs yawn on a visual cue because it is rooted in their evolutionary history, or is it a result of domestication? So, they took to the field to study wolves.

Turns out wolves, like humans, apes and dogs, yawn in response to a pack mate’s yawn. If you want to learn more, please refer to the paper these researchers published last summer, titled “Social Modulation of Contagious Yawning in Wolves.”

Studies show that contagious yawning in several species appears to be a complicated mechanism of empathy that helps promote successful social interactions. Wait, are you yawning right now? You can’t possibly be finding this topic tedious, so I am going to assume you are cooling your brain to be on the alert for predators.

This is getting ridiculous. Since I know you just yawned, now I feel one coming on! Better sign off. Happy Spring!

You can reach Julie at [email protected]



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