Why is smiling and yawning contagious?

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The key would be the mirror neurons

Why is smiling and yawning contagious?

There are theories that try to explain why we yawn. Some say that it is because it's a mechanism to inhale a large amount of air while some others think it is a way to express tiredness and/or hunger. However, there was a lot of mystery around the fact about why it is contagious, but scientists are trying to solve the riddle.

In 1996, the Italian scientist Giacomo Rizzolatti discovered mirror neurons. These kind of cells, which also appear in several animals, are stimulated when other animals or people make a specific movement.

At the beginning, experts though this cells were just for emulating actions, just like smiling, laughing, or yawning. However, nowadays, they’ve realized that neurons are more complex and important than just for mimicking people when they yawn. According to Rizzolatti, and many other scientists, these neurons are also a key part in social behavior.

The mirror neurons help us to appropriate sensations, feelings, and emotions from the others, like happiness, sadness, pain, and fear. These cells are powerful and can also react towards other’s gesticulation. For example, when a person makes a gesture of displeasure or disgust, the observer feels the same sensation.

According to Rizzolatti, these neurons are the center of human empathy. It shows how and why we are social beings. They are part of the awareness and self-awareness systems.

A research published in the Royal Society Open Science, scientist discovered that women are more likely to react to yawn. This can also be linked with a greater capacity of feeling empathy than men.

This could also be the answer for autism. The experts suspect that the "empathy cells" (mirror neurons) could be linked with the autism in humans. According to Giacomo Rizzolatti, the autism people can't develop their motor system.


Latin American Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto

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