Letter/Observer Forum

Neglected Mirror-Like Behavior: Contagious Yawning and Laughing

To the Editor:

The Observer (May 2007) article “Mirror Neurons” conveys appropriate enthusiasm about a neurological mechanism that may provide insights into a variety of cognitive and social processes, from imitation to empathy.  Missing from the article was mention of the most obvious human behaviors with mirror-like properties — contagious yawning and laughter (Provine, 2000, 2005).  Who has not yawned while observing a yawn or fallen victim to the contagious laughter of a television laugh track?  An attractive feature of contagious yawning and laughing as scientific problems, in contrast to mirror neurons, is that the exposure to the stimulus triggers an easily observed behavior, not an inaccessible neuronal discharge.  We can use ourselves as subjects — no fMRI or electrophysiological laboratory is required.  As some readers may have noticed, even reading about or thinking about yawning is a sufficient stimulus for contagious yawning.  The potency of yawns (and laughs) as stimuli makes them ideal classroom demonstrations of behavioral contagion, neurologically programmed social activity, and perhaps even “imitation” in infants of the sort reported by Andrew Meltzoff and discussed in the article.  Although the underlying neurological mechanism and generality of contagious yawning and laughing have not been determined, such mirror-like acts provide a bridge between the often estranged social and neurological sciences.  Certainly, they deserve a better fate than their current status as quaint footnote behaviors.  We undervalue the commonplace and neglect the extraordinary in our midst.

Robert R. Provine
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Provine, R.R. (2000). Laughter: A scientific investigation. New York:Viking
Provine, R R. (2005). Yawning. American Scientist, 93, 532-539.

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