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Bridging a yawning chasm: EEG investigations into the debate concerning the role of the human mirror neuron system in contagious yawning

Psychonomic Society
Publication Date
  • Bf Psychology


Ongoing debate in the literature concerns whether there is a link between contagious yawning and the human mirror neuron system (hMNS). One way of examining this issue is with the use of the electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure changes in mu activation during the observation of yawns. Mu oscillations are seen in the alpha bandwidth of the EEG (8–12 Hz) over sensorimotor areas. Previous work has shown that mu suppression is a useful index of hMNS activation and is sensitive to individual differences in empathy. In two experiments, we presented participants with videos of either people yawning or control stimuli. We found greater mu suppression for yawns than for controls over right motor and premotor areas, particularly for those scoring higher on traits of empathy. In a third experiment, auditory recordings of yawns were compared against electronically scrambled versions of the same yawns. We observed greater mu suppression for yawns than for the controls over right lateral premotor areas. Again, these findings were driven by those scoring highly on empathy. The results from these experiments support the notion that the hMNS is involved in contagious yawning, emphasise the link between contagious yawning and empathy, and stress the importance of good control stimuli.

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