QuestionWhy are yawning, puking, and touching contagious?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we wonder why we're always yawning when we see someone else yawn.
Merely the sound of someone else throwing up can trigger nausea. Across from you, a stranger yawns — and immediately, you feel the urge to yawn yourself. Seeing another person touched evokes the sense that we ourselves are being touched. Pornography thrives because while watching it, people feel that they themselves are having sex. What factors make these particular actions — yawning, touching, and throwing up — so mentally contagious? Hopes&Fears reached out to gather expert takes on this phenomenon. You might find the answers less complicated than you expect.
Professor Emeritus at University of Colorado Boulder, author of many essays and books including Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson)
The word "empathy" is generally used to refer to the ability of one human or nonhuman animal to experience what another individual is experiencing or feeling, to put oneself in their shoes or paws, so to speak. While yawning, throwing up, and touching are rather different activities, at least for me, they all seem to be highly contagious most likely because they tap into the brain's circuitry for empathy for that specific event, and the recipients come to "feel" what the other person is feeling when they yawn, throw up, or are being touched. There are some published research papers on yawning being contagious, but I don't know of any on throwing up or on touching, though I wouldn't be surprised that they are also highly contagious for much the same reason as yawning. I also know this from personal experience — when I see someone yawn I often yawn, and when I see someone barf I also feel nauseous and when I see people touching one another I feel as if I'm being touched as well. I'm sure many readers have also experienced the empathic side of yawning, throwing up, and touching.
Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, spark not only when we taste a strawberry or feel despair — but when we see someone else eat a strawberry or feel despair. And mirror neurons don’t just fire when an actual person across from us expresses emotion or takes a bite of fruit. They activate when we observe fictional characters’ actions and emotions as well: on TV, in theater, and at the movies. This extends beyond our sense of sight and into the written word as well. When we read a verb, such as “taste” or “weep,” our mirror neurons spark in the same spot of our motor cortex that would fire up if we ourselves were tasting or weeping. When we read a word which describes a sensory experience, such as “strawberry” or “lilac,” areas of our brain associated with language light up, but so do the areas of our brain associated with the taste of strawberries and the smell of lilac.
Registered Drama Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor, an early childhood clinician with Child First, with a private practice in New Haven, CT
In most therapy graduate programs, touch is stigmatized, warned against, and analyzed to exhaust. In contrast, touch is so important to development that children who live without it often fail to grow even when provided with adequate nutrition. Touch is such a delicate subject that early in their careers; clinicians will avoid touch to the point that they miss opportunities to connect. I’m reminded of a dying veteran whose hand I held in our last moments together, and I truly know that moment would not have been the same had I been afraid to touch.
That is why it is contagious. It’s connecting. It viscerally tells us that we exist in the world and in relation to others. We are, in fact, not alone. We do not exist in a vacuum. Touch lowers blood pressure, decreases the release of the stress hormone cortisol, and increases the release of oxytocin.
Touch simply feels good and once one has had a rewarding experience of touch, it is wanted again. So when a person sees another enjoying touch, they often have an urge to seek the same sensory input. Perhaps it’s not just the touch that is contagious, but the human bond that seeks to spread from person to person.
ILLUSTRATION: Ira Klimova