If you own a dog, have you ever noticed that your dog yawns when they see you yawn? A recent study on how often dogs yawn around their owners suggests that they may experience empathy.
Teresa Romero and her research team believe that dogs show that they are emotionally connected to people through their yawning, despite that yawning can also be caused by a dog’s mild stress or anxiety. Therefore, Romero and her team set up an experiment in which 25 pet dogs watched both strangers and their owners yawn – or at least pretend to yawn. In order to rule out stress or anxiety as a reason behind the dog’s choice to yawn and copy humans, Romero and her team studied the heartbeats of each dog. They saw no significant differences in the dog’s heartbeats, and the team concluded that the dog’s yawing was in response to their owners.
At the end of the study, the team of researchers found that the dogs yawned more in response to their owner’s legitimate yawns versus their pretend yawns. This was found to be significant because in a similar study, it was discovered that people yawn more in response to people they care about most. This could be due to people empathizing with people who may yawn because they are stressed, anxious, bored, or tired.
What would make this study more interesting is if it included mirror neurons, which have been recognized as a cornerstone of human empathy, language, and other important processes. So how do mirror neurons determine empathy? In our brains are regular motor command neurons. They fire and create a sequence of muscle movements that allow us to reach out and grab something or do some other action. After years of research, a subset of these motor command neurons in our brains were found to fire when someone simply watches the actions or emotional responses of another person. For example, if you were to see someone get pricked by a needle, you might flinch or experience pain. In this situation, mirror neurons are creating a theory of your intentions, which is important for all kinds of social interaction, including empathy.
It is important to note that perhaps both dogs and humans experience empathy towards those important to their lives via contagious yawning. Also, I would not be surprised to find that the mirror neurons in dogs fire in response to their owner’s actions as a sign of empathy.