By Joseph Tropper, MS, LCPC
Scientists have struggled to explain why yawns are catchy. Brian Rundle, a doctoral student in psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University discovered something interesting. In a small study of 135 college students his team rated participants for their degree of cold-heartedness and self-centeredness, seeking to define how much care and empathy they had for others. Each student was then shown three ten second video clips of someone laughing, yawning and a neutral face. The results showed that the less empathy the person had, the less likely he or she was to yawn after seeing someone else do so. (Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, November 2015)
Our understanding of mirror neurons may be relevant here. In the early 1990s researchers at the University of Parma, Italy were studying monkey’s neurological responses to stimuli via electrodes strapped onto their brains. One researcher began to eat an ice cream and the others present noted that the monkey’s brain lit up in the same manner as if the monkey himself was eating the treat. They explored this and ended up proving that our brains are wired to reflect and simulate feelings that others around us are experiencing. Although not all neurologists are convinced of this advent, numerous prominent scientists have accepted the notion and have given theories as to why mirror neurons work. Some attribute it to action coupling, a means of learning new skills by mimicking. Others attribute it helping us understand the action and intentions of others.
Dr. John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 2000) applied mirror neurons to couples counseling showing how when one spouse is upset or hurt, these feelings transferred and were experienced by their partner standing opposite them. Gottman noted that the second partner’s heart rate and physiological makeup would begin to mimic that of the first. What was fascinating was that if the second partner began to practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques this would help calm the first as well. It appears that mirror neurons help us understand and feel for others literally. This would explain why people who are disconnected and prefer to remain distant from others would be less affected by others.
Moving Away From
Karen Horney (1885 – 1952) a famous psychoanalytic theorists believed that children developed anxiety due to faulty cultural and interpersonal relationships (Our Inner Conflicts, 1945). Children would then develop one of three ways (combined manifestation possible as well) to cope with their negative attachment experiences. The child would either: (1) move towards people (compliance for the sake of acceptance), (2) move against them (aggression to promote self) or (3) move away from them (withdrawal). These three responses are linked with animal’s basic protective maneuvers: submission, fight and flight.
Viewing those who distance themselves from people, it appears they have developed their flight and withdraw response and thus they do not allow others to influence them. However, the human need for attachment is very strong and perhaps as suggested by the above research, people who practice opening up and letting their loved ones and others into their intellectual and emotional space would be able to gage their success based on how easily they are able to catch a yawn from someone else.
About the author
Joseph Tropper, MS, LCPC, is a licensed clinical therapist and the Director of Operations at RCC.