The Social Yawn

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All animals yawn (see animalyawns.com) and in humans yawning seems to be contagious. Seeing another person yawn, or even just reading about yawning can make you yawn. (We talk about unconscious immitation in chapter 10 of the book). James Anderson from the University of Stirling gave a lecture in Sheffield last week about yawning – in the introduction he told us that when he lectures on yawning lots of people in the audience, well, yawn. But his talk was only yawn-inducing in the social-contaigon sense.

Yawning, it seems to me, may provide us with paradigm case of an automatic behaviour that, moving along the phylogenetic scale, has become co-opted into a quasi-voluntary social signal.

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The face, the brain and Marilyn Monroe

Researchers from London and Italy have just published a study on the brain areas involved in perceiving and understanding faces. They created an elegant experiment where they used morphing to compare how brain activity changes as a photograph is gradually blended from one person to another, for example, from Marilyn Monroe to Margaret Thatcher.

They found that the brain did not respond in the same gradual manner, and that activation shifted to specific areas at certain points in the blending process. When the blending was in its early stages, participants perceived the picture as the same person with physical changes to their face, an experience which caused activation in the inferior occipital gyrus. When the level of blending affected recognition of the pictured person, the right fusiform gyrus was activated, an area thought to be involved with judgements of familiarity for faces. When a participant was already familiar with the people in the pictures, the temporal lobes became active when the final face became clear. These areas have been linked to semantic memory and naming.

This study is important as it shows specialised areas of activation for different stages in the face perception process in a single experiment.

These stages have been hypothesised to exist for quite some time in a model developed by psychologists Vicki Bruce and Andy Young, largely from studies on people with prosopagnosia, a condition where face recognition can be impaired, usually after brain damage.

Link to BBC News story.
Link to story in The Guardian.
Link to abstract from Nature Neuroscience.

Imaginary friends

Psychologists from the University of Oregon have been studying children’s imaginary friends. Their study found that 65% of children had imaginary friends at the age of 7, a much higher rate than expected, and that the presence of an imaginary friend is linked to better emotional understanding and ‘theory of mind’ skills (the suggested ability that allows us to figure out and represent others’ beliefs and intentions).

Other studies on imaginary friends in children have also shown that they seem to be quite normal and generally linked to positive psychological development.

Interestingly though, some of the children report that their imaginary playmates don’t always do what they’re told and sometimes won’t go away when expected to, or bother them inconveniently. It seems that even from quite a young age, we are not always master of our own imaginations.

Link to story in Seattle Post-Intelligencer.