Sunday, December 11, 2005

On Writing: Contagious Yawning (and celebrity Teeth and Unpopped Popcorn)

Today the New York Times Magazine published three short stories of mine as part of their annual Year in Ideas issue -- a catalogue of interesting ideas from 2005. This issue is always a blast to write for: Last year I got to write about Eyeball Jewelry and one man's quest to Make The National Anthem Singable. This year it's Why Certain Popcorn Kernels Won't Pop, and People Who Want celebrities' Teeth and Why Yawning is Contagious.

The yawning story, which was probably the most interesting one, had to be short for space reasons, so there was a lot I couldn't go into: The scientist I wrote about, Steve Platek, is actually interested in using contagious yawning to study the evolution of human consciousness, which is completely fascinating and at points mind-boggling abstract.

Platek, as the story explains, has found that contagious yawning has to do with empathy: The more empathetic you are, the more likely you are to relate to a yawner and experience a yawn yourself. The way this relates to consciousness is almost counter intuitive: The neural pathways involved in empathy are the same pathways involved in self-awareness, because we empathize with people by tapping into our own experiences. Self-awareness gives us a reference point for empathizing with people: You fall down on the sidewalk and get embarrassed, and I feel embarrassed for you because my brain remembers a time when I felt the same.

Yawning exists in all living creatures: Insects, fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, you name it. But contagious yawning only exists (as far as scientists know) in humans and certain "higher primates" that have been shown to have "empathetic abilities." (Don't get me started on this idea that some animals are self-aware and others aren't -- I have issues with that, but I won't go into it here.) The way Platek sees it, at some point in evolution, certain brains -- specifically those of humans and some primates -- evolved a level of consciousness that allowed them to experience empathy (and therefore contagious yawns), and other brains didn't.

"In trying to understand something like the evolution of the self, of consciousness and empathy," Platek told me, "we need specific tests for it. We can't use Petri dishes and microscopes to see these things, so we have to develop creative ways of looking for evidence that they exist." Which is precisely what contagious yawning is, Platek says. It's a cue that a brain has a level of self-consciousness that makes "empathetic mechanisms" possible.

Platek and I had a great time talking about yawning. When we got to this point in the conversation I said, Wait a minute ... You're saying you can study consciousness by looking at yawning? To which he said, Yep, that's right: "Contagious yawning is a way for science to have a window into understanding the basic neural mechanism that may have given rise to the evolution of consciousness, or what we call the human condition." Then he paused.

"Whoa," I said, "that's heavy."

"I know," he whispered, laughing. "I was just thinking the same thing: It's weird. We were talking about yawning and now I'm talking about consciousness!? But that's where it all came from, so that's what happens. You talk about yawning, you end up at consciousness. "

Who knew studying yawning could be so useful. And there's more: Certain types of brain damage can cause people to suddenly lose their empathethic abilities, so contagious yawning can serve as a test to see if your brain is functioning normally. Yawning is also a very curious (and little understood) side effect of certain drugs -- especially impotence drugs, which has led one researcher to investigate the connection between sexuality and yawning. Then there's scizophrenia (as I mentioned in my last post): Platek uses people with schizophrenicenic tendencies to study contagious yawning -- since schizophreniaenia interferes with empathetic abilities, it can make people immune to contagious yawns.

Clearly, I could go on and on about yawning. And I will with a longer story soon. But until then, I'll end with this: You want evidence that yawning is contagious? Just do a google images search for "yawn" and start looking through the pictures ...

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Blogger Edward said...

Just reading this made me yawn.

3:15 PM  

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