Tiring Day

A major problem that we have all experienced at sometime is the avoidance of catching a yawning jag when listening to a lecture after a good lunch or dinner. There are currently three ideas battling it out to explain our plight when someone else yawns first. The first is that it is simply a fixed action pattern that is triggered when we see someone else yawn. The other explanations require us to either feel empathy with the other person or that we can’t help ourselves, but we just have to mimic the action. These last two are indicative of some form of complex social process between the yawner and the yawnee.

Wilkinson et al (1, 2) have just published a study in which they aimed to understand this better. They chose a group of seven subjects whose social interactions were on a fairly basic and phlegmatic level. They were red-footed tortoises that knew how to behave in a proper scientific study. Yawning though, was not something they worked on previously. Alexandra was taught to open her mouth in a yawn-like gape when she was shown a red card. A conditioned reflex shared with most of our professional footballers.

A series of experiments with two girls, Wilhelmina and Moses (Oh dear!); a boy, Aldous; and three who they weren’t sure about called Quinn, Esme and Molly, were performed in which Alexandra was shown the red card in their presence and gaped in disbelief on cue.

Nobody yawned in response, so there was no contagion. Thus the fixed action pattern can be ruled out as a mechanism. Empathy and unconscious mimicry were already eliminated, as the species is not noted for rushing around showing too much empathy or strong social-group  interactions.

One Response so far.

  1. jazgal says:

    I might think that tortoises would be less inclined to mimic, or respond to facial expressions than mammals - I would like to see the experiment done with a more "expressionistic" group, although I am impressed that tortoises can be trained at al1!

Leave a Reply