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Mirror neuron activity during contagious yawning—an fMRI study

Abstract

Yawning is contagious. However, little research has been done to elucidate the neuronal representation of this phenomenon. Our study objective was to test the hypothesis that the human mirror neuron system (MNS) is activated by visually perceived yawning. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain activity during contagious yawning (CY). Signal-dependent changes in blood oxygen levels were compared when subjects viewed videotapes of yawning faces as opposed to faces with a neutral expression. In response to yawning, subjects showed unilateral activation of their Brodmann’s area 9 (BA 9) portion of the right inferior frontal gyrus, a region of the MNS. In this way, two individuals could share physiological and associated emotional states based on perceived motor patterns. This is one component of empathy (motor empathy) that underlies the development of cognitive empathy. The BA 9 is reportedly active in tasks requiring mentalizing abilities. Our results emphasize the connection between the MNS and higher cognitive empathic functions, including mentalizing. We conclude that CY is based on a functional substrate of empathy.

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Fig. 1

Abbreviations

BA:

Brodmann’s Area

BOLD:

Blood oxygenation level-dependent

CY:

Contagious yawning

fMRI:

Functional magnetic resonance imaging

IFG:

Inferior frontal gyrus

IPL:

Inferior parietal lobule

MNS:

Mirror neuron system

STS:

Sulcus temporalis superior

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Acknowledgements

We thank Mengia Dosch, Thomas Loenneker, and Ernst Martin for their support in data acquisition and analysis.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Helene Haker.

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Haker, H., Kawohl, W., Herwig, U. et al. Mirror neuron activity during contagious yawning—an fMRI study. Brain Imaging and Behavior 7, 28–34 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-012-9189-9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-012-9189-9

Keywords

  • Empathy
  • fMRI
  • Mirror neuron system
  • Social cognition
  • Imitation
  • Resonance
  • Inferior frontal gyrus