In an old article BBC News reported about research showing that Pet dogs can ‘catch’ human yawns. The article is available online in Biology Letters here. (Article ‘Dogs catch human yawns’ by Ramiro M Joly-Mascheroni, Atsushi Senju* and Alex J Shepherd, 2008).
The copying activity suggests that canines are capable of empathising with people, say the researchers who recorded dogs’ behaviour in lab tests.
Until now, only humans and their close primate relatives were thought to find yawning contagious.
The team – from Birkbeck College, University of London – reports its findings in Biology Letters.
Yawning, although sometimes a response to extreme stress, is more often a sign of tiredness; but the reason for why yawning is catching is not fully understood.
Human cues. There is evidence that autistic individuals are less inclined to yawn into response to another human yawning, suggesting that contagious yawning betrays an ability to empathise, explained Birbeck’s Dr Atsushi Senju. Dr Senju and his team wondered whether dogs – that are very skilled at reading human social cues – could read the human yawn signal
There are several very interesting things in these statements. Firstly, I am interested in yawning itself. It is called a social cue. What is a ‘social cue’ as opposed to an ‘intentional act of communication’, which is how I define ‘gestures’?
The article itself has this to say about dogs’ abilities:
Dogs are unusually skilled at reading human social and communicative cues. They can follow human gaze and pointing (Hare et al. 2002; Miklo´ si et al. 2003; Miklo´ si & Soproni 2006), they can show sensitivity to others’ knowledge states (e.g. indicating the location of a hidden toy more frequently to someone not involved in hiding it than to someone who did the hiding, Vira´nyi et al. 2006) and they are even able to match their own actions to observed human actions (Topa´l et al. 2006).
Goffman and Kendon both make a distinction between ‘giving information’ and ‘giving off information’. In most cases, a yawn gives off information to possible observers, but a yawner does not mean to give information, I would think (although in many cases yawners may want to indicate their tiredness or boredom). The distinction is important because giving information is typically attended to and reacted upon, whereas giving off information is not. Expectations and social etiquette are likewise.
So, how about contagious yawning? It seems to be caused by empathy or to require empathy, at least in humans and dogs. As such a co-yawn also gives off the information that this other persons is observing you and empathizes with you, for what it’s worth.
And I think that that could well be the best explanation. Contagious yawning is behaviour that serves to provide information to those present that they are aware of each other and ’empathizing’ in a very economic way. It is economic because none of those present has to overtly attend to the behaviour and react upon it with speech or gestures. A bonding mechanism mostly below the surface of our consciousness.
And possibly, contagious yawning is much like all sorts of other behaviour, such as mirroring. It is a kind of mirroring I suppose. But there are many other sorts of mirroring.
Here is an alternative interpretation and explanation of contagious yawning
Note that there is a considerable and growing literature on yawning, contagious yawning and how this relates to our psychology and biology. In humans, dogs, chimpansees, other apes and monkeys, birds, cats, etc.
A very interesting research case. Take any animal and see if it catches your yawn.
I’m off yawning at the chickens, bye…