News / Science & Technology

Chimps Respond to Human Yawning

Chimpanzees at the Chimp Eden rehabilitation center, near Nelspruit, South Africa, Feb. 1, 2011.
Chimpanzees at the Chimp Eden rehabilitation center, near Nelspruit, South Africa, Feb. 1, 2011.

Multimedia

Audio
Joe DeCapua
A new study says as chimpanzees grow, they increase their ability for empathy – the ability to recognize emotions in others. Researchers say they learned this by watching chimps yawn when they see people yawn.


Elaine Masden and her colleagues at Lund University in Sweden base their conclusions on studying the primates in a sanctuary. But you have to ask – why study contagious yawning?

Laughing, she said, “I don’t know. It’s a really peculiar effect. It’s such a small thing, but that nonetheless most of us experience. Most of us when we see or hear others yawn or just think about yawning or read about yawning then we ourselves begin to yawn. So it’s something that most people are familiar with.”
Dr. Madsen -- an evolutionary psychologist -- says not everyone reacts the same way. About half of people tested do not respond to contagious yawning.

“It begs the question, why? If it’s something that we find all over the world, why do only roughly half of us do it?

Not that she’s pointing fingers, but among those who generally do not respond to contagious yawning…

“Psychopaths, for example, don’t show contagious yawning. And we know that they are very low on – what’s called – effective empathy. There are two types of empathy that researchers usually operate with. One is cognitive empathy, which is a very high level of empathy where you sort of imagine how someone else must be feeling or thinking. And then there’s the more simple kind of empathy, which is more immediate and we see that in animals. The kind of empathy where, for example, if you see someone caught their hand you instantly feel in in your stomach. It hurts. Psychopaths, for example, don’t experience this effective empathy. They can be very clever, but they don’t experience this effective empathy,” she said.

So psychopaths don’t have as much effective empathy as a chimpanzee.

In humans, children begin to yawn when they see other people yawn starting at around four years old. It indicates they’re beginning to develop empathy. The yawning response – or yawn contagion – is strongest between people who know each other well.

There are a lot of theories as to why people and some animals yawn. Madsen thinks it could be something to synchronize group behavior.

Madsen and her colleagues studied 33 orphaned chimps, ranging from infants to eight years old. They had the chimps watch them as they yawned, opened and closed their mouths in fake yawns and wiped their noses. The chimps only responded to the yawns, but only if they were at least five years of age. Any chimp younger than that appeared immune to contagious yawning – just about the same as humans. So empathy develops over the first few years of life.

Madsen said, “Some people have looked at adult chimps and have shown them cartoons of other chimps yawning and that sets off their yawning as well. The stimulus, the yawn stimulus, can be very simple and still set off a yawn. We seem to have this very strong inclination to copy the yawn, whether it’s from a cartoon, whether it’s another human that the animal sees. I also catch their yawns. It also works the other way around. So very simple stimulus can make us yawn.”

Madsen said that the research poses more questions than it provides answers. So, a lot more study is needed as to what it all means.

This contagious yawning that’s seen between people and chimps is not common between people and other animals. In fact, cross species yawn contagion – that’s the scientific term – has previously only been demonstrated in dogs -- but not until the dogs are at least seven months old. Dogs can become so in-tune with their owners yawning that they not only copy the behavior, but get sleepy as well.

You May Like

Sydney Hostage-taker Failed to Manipulate Social Media

Gunman forced captives to use personal Facebook, YouTube accounts to issue his demands; online community helped flag messages, urged others not to share them More

UN Seeks $8.4 Billion to Help War-Hit Syrians

Effort aimed at helping Syrians displaced within their own country and those who've fled to neighboring ones More

Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

It's an umbrella group of militant organizations whose objective is enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan 'whether through peace or war' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid