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Le bâillement, du réflexe à la pathologie
Le bâillement : de l'éthologie à la médecine clinique
Le bâillement : phylogenèse, éthologie, nosogénie
 Le bâillement : un comportement universel
La parakinésie brachiale oscitante
Yawning: its cycle, its role
Warum gähnen wir ?
Fetal yawning assessed by 3D and 4D sonography
Le bâillement foetal
Le bâillement, du réflexe à la pathologie
Le bâillement : de l'éthologie à la médecine clinique
Le bâillement : phylogenèse, éthologie, nosogénie
 Le bâillement : un comportement universel
La parakinésie brachiale oscitante
Yawning: its cycle, its role
Warum gähnen wir ?
Fetal yawning assessed by 3D and 4D sonography
Le bâillement foetal
 Content and Contagion in Yawning Sarnecki

mise à jour du
1 décembre 2012
in french
Echokinetic yawning, theory of mind, and empathy
O. Walusinski
Yawning: unsuspected avenue
for a better understanding of arousal and interoception


Tous les articles sur la contagion du bâillement
All articles about contagious yawning
Contagious Yawning and Psychopathy
Humans are social beings. One of the primordial functions of the brain is to enable optimal interaction with others. The success of social interaction resides in the capacity to understand others in terms of motor actions (intentionality), emotional perception, and a mnemic and comparative cognitive integration which separates the self from others (empathy, altruism). In psychology, all these capacities are referred to collectively as Theory of Mind (TOM). It has long been known that yawning is "contagious"; ethologists speak of behavioural imitation and neurologists refer to echokinesis, a term coined by JM. Charcot. How does such echokinesis turn yawning into a form of non-verbal social communication related to TOM and empathy?
The discovery of mirror neurons by Rizzolatti and Gallese (1) offers a neurophysiological explanation for TOM. In most vertebrates, developing the capacity to explore the environment, making decisions (especially in a life-or-death response to a predator) and general preparation for action involve the activation of these mirror neurons, along with motor neurons, in cortical motor areas. Mirror neurons are activated when the movements and actions of conspecifics are perceived, indicating that intentional action and the corresponding mental imagery share the same neuronal structures. Hence, when a single pigeon senses the approach of a pedestrian, the entire flock automatically flies away, even though most of the birds did not actually perceive the danger. This cooperative motor automatism is a result of adaptive responses selected by evolution. It serves the group by providing protection from predators. Echokinesis-induced yawning does not correspond to this mechanism, as indicated by its latent appearance and its inconsistency. In fact, echokinesis only occurs in situations of minimal mental stimulation (public transport); during prolonged intellectual effort, people are not susceptible to this phenomenon. Using functional MRI (fMRI), Schürmann et al. (2) confirmed that during echokinetic yawning, there is no activation of mirror neurons in motor areas of the human brain (left posterior inferior frontal cortex), whereas these neurons are activated during observation of other types of facial gestures (decoding of intentionality). These ethological and neurophysiological elements demonstrate that, strictly speaking, echokinetic yawning is not motor imitation.
Visual recognition of one's environment involves various neuronal circuits which distinguish inanimate objects from living creatures (3). Recognition of human faces involves specific dedicated neurons in the temporal area. The inferior temporal region (IT) allows immediate overall recognition of faces, both their identity and their expression, apparently through its own autonomous, non-hippocampal memory (4). As for the superior temporal sulcus (STS), it is specifically activated during perception of eye and mouth movements, which suggests its implication in the visual perception of emotions, once again by the activation of mirror neurons. These neurons mime the expression perceived, helping the observer to understand it. Schürmann et al. (2) demonstrated that the STS is activated during echokinetic yawning. This activation, automatic and involuntarily, is transmitted to the left peri-amygdala, the posterior cingulate cortex and the precuneus. These structures are thought to play a role in differentiating emotions expressed by the human face and, especially, in evaluating the sincerity of the sentiment expressed.
Using fMRI, Platek et al. (5) found a correlation between personality traits and the activation of neuronal circuits beyond the STS. « In contrast to those that were unaffected by seeing someone yawn, people who showed contagions yawing identified their own faces faster, did better at making inferences about mental states, and exhibited fewer schizotypal personality characteristics. These results suggest that contagious yawning might be related to selfawareness and empathic processing »(6). Subjects considered empathetic, who were very susceptible to echokinetic yawning, activated the peri-amygdala but not the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, whereas schizotypal subjects, who were not susceptible to this type of yawning, did activate the amygdala (fear ?). Neurophysiological studies of empathy (7) show similar zones of activation (STS, insula, amygdala, cingulate cortex). These data imply that contagious yawning may reside in brain substrates which have been implicated in self-recognition and mental state attribution, namely the right prefrontal cortex.
During echokinetic yawning, frontal lobes show no inhibitor activity. Therefore, it appears that while the understanding of intentionality (motor mirror neurons) and the sharing of the emotions (mirror neurons in the insula, amygdala and right parietal cortex) require a common action-perception neuronal activation and, simultaneously, frontal inhibition (orbitofrontal activation) to prevent motor exteriorisation, echokinetic yawning cannot be inhibited involuntarily due to the potentially absence of frontal inhibiting relays. In contrast, the right temporoparietal activation makes it possible to differentiate between the self and others, and thus identify on a conscious level that another person's yawn has acted as a trigger (8). Yawning could thus illustrate the simulation theory of mind. In 2008, F. Nahab et al. write "specifically associated with the viewing of the contagious yawn was an area of activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. These findings suggest a role for the prefrontal cortex in the processing of contagious yawning, while demonstrating a unique automaticity in the processing of contagious motor programs which take place independently of mirror neuron networks".
Whereas yawning is universal amongst vertebrates, it appears that only primates are capable of echokinetic yawning. Anderson (9) reported that chimpanzees yawn while watching a video of their conspecifics yawning, but not while watching other facial expressions. Chimpanzees thus appear to be susceptible to echokinetic yawning in the same way humans are. Although the existence of a TOM in chimpanzees remains controversial (10), the observation of echokinetic yawning in this species argues in favour of different levels of TOM, which are perhaps secondary to the different evolutionary paths of cognitive development in hominids. Human psychiatric pathology also dissects TOM in a similar way (11). In 2008, A. Senju et al. conduct the first study which seems to demonstrate that human yawns are possibly contagious to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). If the dogs' capacity for contagious yawning has evolved with the capacity for reading human communicative signals, it is possible that dogs are more sensitive to human yawns than dogs' yawns.
A. Senju et al. (14) showed video clips of people either yawning or simply opening and closing their mouths to 49 children who were 7 years or older, half of whom were autistic. The yawning faces triggered more than twice as many yawns in non-autistic children than in their autistic counterparts. This study suggest that contagious yawning is impaired in autism spectrum disorders, which may relate to their impairment in empathy
Anderson (12) showed that children were only susceptible to echokinesis-induced yawning during their sixth year, i.e. after acquiring the ability to reflect on what others are thinking and attribute mental states accordingly. In other words, one must possess a state of cognitive maturity on a functional level to be susceptible to echokinetic yawning. Consequently, there is a phenomenological link between the capacity to attribute mental states to others (TOM), which is the basis for empathy, and what is commonly referred to as contagious yawning. In addition to the neuroanatomical hierarchy separating TOM into sensorimotor, emotional and cognitive levels, echokinetic yawning makes it possible to disassociate TOM, via its ontogenesis and its phylogenesis, into various developmental levels, an approach which is reinforced by the differential activation of specific neuronal circuits (13). This type of yawning may have conferred a selective advantage by synchronising the level of vigilance between the members of a social group. It may also take part in a form of involuntary instinctive empathy, which could be qualified as rudimentary and probably appeared late in the course of hominid evolution (in the neomammalian brain proposed by P. McLean).
F. Giganti et al. : The contagious effect of yawning was present in young subjects and young-old subjects, whereas it seems to disappear in old-old subjects.The parallel changes of contagious yawning and ToM abilities across the lifespan suggest that similar mechanisms are involved in ToM abilities, like in contagious sensitivity to yawning. Besides, changes in the response to other's people yawns during very old age could reflect ToM difficulties, reported in old-old subjects, mainly in the cognitive component of ToM.
1 - Rizzolatti G, Fadiga L, Gallese V, et al. Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 1996;3:131-141.
2 - Schürmann M, Hesse MD, Stephan KE, et al. Yearning to yawn: the neural basis of contagious yawning. Neuroimage. 2005;24:1260-1264.
3 - Puce A, Perrett D. Electrophysiology and brain imaging of biological motion. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2003;358:435-445.
4 - Afraz SR, Kiani R, Esteky H. Microstimulation of inferotemporal cortex influences face categorization. Nature. 2006;442:692-695.
5 - Platek SM, Mohamed FB, Gallup GG Jr. Contagious yawning and the brain. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2005;23:448-452.
6 - Platek SM, Critton SR, Myers TE, Gallup GG. Contagious yawning: the role of self-awareness and mental state attribution. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res. 2003;17(2):223-237.
7 - Carr L, Iacoboni M, Dubeau MC, et al. Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: a relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2003;100:5497-5502.
8 - Decety J, Grezes J. The power of simulation: imagining one's own and other's behavior. Brain Res. 2006;1079:4-14.
9 - Anderson JR, Myowa-Yamakoshi M, Matsuzawa T. Contagious yawning in chimpanzees. Proc Biol Sci. 2004;271 Suppl 6:S468-470.
10 - Povinelli DJ, Vonk J. Chimpanzee minds: suspiciously human? Trends Cogn Sci. 2003;7:157-160.
11 - Blair RJ. Responding to the emotions of others: dissociating forms of empathy through the study of typical and psychiatric populations. Conscious Cogn. 2005;14:698-718.
12 - Anderson JR, Meno P. Psychological influences on yawning in children. Current Psychology Letters Behaviour, Brain, & Cognition. 2003;2:390.
13 - Singer T. The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2006;30:855-863.
14 - SenjuA, Maeda M, Kikuchi Y et al. Absence of contagious yawning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Biology letters 2007;3:706-708.

A forgotten precursor of today's research !
Yawning, Yielding, and Yearning to Yawn
Paper presented at the meeting of the Midwest Psychological Assiociation Chicago, May 1974
 Cialdini RB, McPeek RW
I am glad to offer a very interesting paper, submitted orally to a congress in 1974 and never published, in respect to the later studies of Provine, Platek, Schürmann, Anderson and others.
"Like eating, yawning is an everyday phenomenon which can be both internally (i.e., due to weariness) and externally (e.g., seeing someone else yawn) elicited. The present study was designed
to demonstrate the existence of the externally produced "social" yawn, and
to investigate the role of individual differences in susceptibility to the contagious yawn.
These results suggest that the same factors important in more traditional social influence settings are also active in the contagion of social behaviors like yawning. In particular, individuals who conform in an Asch paradigm, who are identifiable by the Barron test (Barron, 1953), appear to also be the individuals most susceptible to contagious yawning. One may speculate further as to parallels between yawning and the influence process; for example, credibility of the model yawner could affect degree of contagion."
Response properties of neurons in temporal cortical visual areas of infant monkeys Rodman HR
Yawning Surprising facts ans misleading myths about our health Anahad O'Connor