New York Times Video and Mimetic Theory Part 1: The Contagion of Yawning and the Social Glue

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It just so happens that middle schoolers and the New York Times are asking the same question: “Why is yawning contagious?”

Unfortunately, the New York Times doesn’t answer the question in their video. The closest it gets to an answer is to say, “Scientists see this yawning as part of the social glue that holds us together, so it’s not surprising that it occurs in other social species, too.”

That’s hardly an answer, and in fact, it only serves to bring up another question – what is the social glue that holds us together?

As the video shows, monkeys yawn contagiously with each other and with humans because they are imitative. “Monkey see, monkey do.” Aren’t monkeys cute, imitative creatures?

Hold on there, fellow human!

Neuroscience helps us answer the question with one word: mimesis. It turns out that you are a better imitator than those cute monkeys. In the book Mimesis and Science, Scott Garrels states that neuroscience shows that humans and monkeys have mirror neurons, which make both species imitative. The difference between us and monkeys is that “though monkeys have mirror neurons, they have not been found to be effective imitators” (25).

You, on the other hand, are an effective imitator. In fact, you are so effective at imitating that you do it unconsciously. When someone yawns, you instinctively yawn. When you are at dinner and someone reaches for a glass of water, you instinctively reach for a glass of water. Why? In another chapter of Mimesis and Science, Vittorio Gallese explains the science of mirror neurons with a bunch of words in a sequence I don’t understand and would be embarrassed to have to pronounce at a neuroscience convention. Fortunately, I’ve never been to a neuroscience convention, but here you go:

After the discovery of mirror neurons in the macaque monkey brain, several studies using different experimental methodologies and techniques have also demonstrated that in the human brain, the neural circuits underpinning action execution directly map its perception when executed by others. These parieto-premotor cortical networks are defined as the Mirror Neuron System. (94)

Umm…Let me try to unpack that. The human brain has mirror neurons that are the circuits that underpin all our actions. When we yawn, those neurons fire. But they also fire whenever we witness someone else execute an action. So, when you see someone yawn, those mirror neurons are firing as if you were yawning, too. And so you yawn.

Our exceptional mimetic capability is the glue that holds us together. Indeed, as the New York Times video states, “Contagious yawning, as mundane as it is, seems to be a sign post for something deeper: the development of empathy.” Empathy is an important aspect of our mimetic nature. As Gallese states in a sentence I’m proud to be able to understand, “Altogether, these results suggest that the same neural circuits underpinning our actions, intentions, emotions, and sensations also underpin our capacity to recognize and identify with the actions, intentions, emotions, and sensations of others” (96). The problem is that the mimetic impulse, which can lead to benevolent empathy, can also lead to violence. In his conclusion, Gallese states,

It could be tempting to use such evidence to assert the neurobiological basis of the supposed natural proclivity of humanity to sympathy, fellow feelings, goodwill, and altruism. I think we must resist such temptation and look at human nature as it really is, and not as we would like it to be. In this respect, Girard’s Mimetic Theory is illuminating, because it shows that mimesis, when declined as mimetic desire, has the intrinsic potentiality of driving humans to aggression and violence. (103)

For example, let’s take that glass of water sitting on the table. Someone reaches for their water and you instinctively imitate their reach for your glass. But what happens if you don’t have a glass? You will both reach for the same glass. Two hands reaching for the same object will inevitably drive us to conflict. You may end up fighting for that glass of water, or that jacket at Macy’s, or that job promotion, or the same love interest. Why? Because of the non-conscious mimetic impulse to imitate our fellow human beings.

So, the next time you find yourself imitating someone’s yawn, pat yourself on the back as you remind yourself that you are a much more effective imitator than monkeys. And that is both a very good thing when it comes to empathizing with those who suffer and a very dangerous thing when it comes to violence. It’s also important when it come to faith. After all, Jesus invites us to follow him and Paul invites us to imitate him as he imitates Christ. For faith, the social glue that holds us together is imitating Christ’s nonviolent love for the world.

(For more on this topic, see Andrew Marr’s article on mimesis “Human See, Human Want,” and Erik Buys’ article “Fairness Study” on how empathy may not be as benevolent as we think.)

Adam Ericksen blogs with Suzanne Ross at the Raven Foundation, where they use the insights of mimetic theory to “Make religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility.” Follow Adam on Twitter.


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