Forty-five minutes into a quarterly earnings meeting, you look to your left and the person sitting next to you suddenly squints their eyes, unhinges their jaw, and breathes in a mighty gulp of air. Before you can think, you’re yawning and sparking off a series yawns around the room.
Did you just yawn?
Yawns are more than physical expressions of fatigue. Some scientists believe mimicking a yawn is also an outward sign of empathy. In a real yawner of a study, researchers found that chimps can catch yawns from humans, which suggests chimps may have the ability to empathize with a variety of creatures in a way that’s similar to our own.
People with high levels of empathy tend to be more susceptible to contagious yawns. Therefore, yawning has become a simple way to measure empathetic feelings in animals. A past study demonstrated that our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, will mirror the yawns of other chimps in a family group. But until now it’s been unknown whether chimps were also susceptible to cross-species yawn contagion.
This is of interest because it’s a way to measure the flexibility of the animals’ sense of empathy.As study author Matthew Campbell told ABCScience:
“We think the mechanism for copying the yawns of others is the same for copying other facial expressions, like happiness, sadness or fear… For our purposes, yawning is simply a contagious expression we can easily see and count.”
Campbell and colleagues selected 19 chimpanzees from the Yerkes research center and showed them videos of various subjects yawning: unfamiliar humans, familiar humans, unfamiliar chimps and gelada baboons.
They found that the chimpanzees yawned when they saw videos of humans, regardless of familiarity, but ignored the yawns of unfamiliar chimps and baboons. This indicates that, contrary to what was thought, empathizing with complete strangers and other species is not a uniquely human trait. The results were published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
In the wild, chimpanzees are very territorial and do not take kindly to chimps outside their group. But this study indicates that chimpanzees aren’t hard-wired to feel a certain way about other primates, including humans.
Because the chimps interact with people on a daily basis at the Yerkes center, they may have developed a comfortable association with humans. The authors speculate that chimps could form a similar bond with baboons after living amongst them for a period of time.
Empathetic flexibility has probably been embedded in chimps’ psyche for quite some time, researchers say. Future studies could shine light on how expression of empathy changed in humans since we split from our most recent common ancestor. Now that’s nothing to yawn at.
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