Life Wellbeing This is why smiles and yawns are contagious

This is why smiles and yawns are contagious

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Have you ever been told you have a contagious smile?

Well, it turns out that smiling really is contagious and that ‘mimicking’ another person’s facial expressions actually helps us to better understand their emotions, according to a new study.

In a review article published recently in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a team of social psychologists have pieced together evidence to better understand how people in social situations simulate, or ‘mirror’, facial expressions in other people in order to create emotional responses in themselves.

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Lead author Professor Paula Niedenthal, from the University of Wisconsin, USA, says that by mirroring facial expressions we produce a “recognition judgment” that helps us perceive others’ emotions and empathise with them.

“You reflect on your emotional feelings and then you generate some sort of recognition judgment, and the most important thing that results is that you take the appropriate action – you approach the person or you avoid the person,” the Professor says in a statement.

“Your own emotional reaction to the face changes your perception of how you see the face, in such a way that provides you more information about what it means.”

smile boy
There’s just no fighting it. Photo: Getty

Extracting emotional meaning from faces, the authors write, occurs “in a matter of a few hundred milliseconds” and leads to the ‘perceiver’ to recreate the facial expressions of the ‘expressor’ – this facial mimicry helps the emotion-orientated areas of the brain to link the simulated facial expression to actual emotional experiences.

Associate Professor Frini Karayanidis, a cognitive neuroscience expert from the University of Newcastle, says facial mimicry is an integral part of normal human social behaviour.

“It is part of our socialisation. There’s a lot of social research out there that says that we have what people have called the mirror system or a system within our brain that links the sensation of perception with action,” Associate Professor Karayanidis tells The New Daily.

“If you record the brain’s activity while watching a happy movie, you can actually see reactions that are activating the same network as the person that is really experiencing that.”

Stop, you’re making me yawn!

Facial mimicry might also help to explain the phenomenon of contagious yawns – if you watch a friend yawn, it is a near certainty that you will be yawning yourself soon afterwards.

In a study published in early February, researchers found that women are more susceptible to yawn ‘contagions’ than men and concluded that, like facial mimicry, it is linked to your ability to empathise.

“Yawn contagion is an empathy-based phenomenon… contagious yawning recruits different neuronal networks involved in empathic processing,” the authors write.

Facial mimicry seems to have evolved as an integral human behaviour. Photo: Getty

It is also hypothesised that contagious yawning is a product of evolution in many species of animals – the act of yawning in itself helps keep the brain alert, hence it makes sense to ‘spread’ it and keep the family and pack/herd vigilant.

But what does facial mimicry mean for people with autism and other developmental disorders who have trouble perceiving emotions?

Smiling may help us understand autism

Professor Vicki Bitsika, director of the Centre for Autism Spectrum Disorder at Bond University, says facial mimicry can help us to better understand cognitive processes in people with autism.

“[Facial mimicry] is an area of deficit in people on the autism spectrum and it has quite a substantial effect on their capacity to form relationships with others and also to be able to understand and anticipate how someone else might feel,” Professor Bitsika tells The New Daily.

“There are a number of sub-behaviours or prerequisite skills that anyone would need to have in order to be able to engage in facial mimicry with understanding so that then they can have the corresponding empathic response … in relation to people on the autism spectrum, those prerequisite skills are either delayed or they’re missing,” she says.

Professor Bitsika explains that by better understanding the links between emotions and social behaviour, psychologists will be able to specifically tailor therapy treatments to suit the needs of individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

“It’s important for us as professionals in the field to see how we can translate those findings … to develop a personalised treatment program that meets the specific needs of children.”

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