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The researchers used contagious yawning to test empathetic response. “Yawns are contagious in the same way other emotional responses, like smiles, frowns, and fear, are contagious,” says lead researcher Matthew Campbell.(Credit: Devyn Carter)

EMORY (US)—Researchers have documented the first example of a chimpanzee empathizing with 3-D animation—in this case, a yawning ape. The findings could help in the design of animation therapy for children with autism.

“We know humans often empathize with fictional displays of behavior, including those in cartoons and video games, even though the displays are obviously artificial,” says lead researcher Matthew Campbell, a post-doctoral fellow in psychobiology at Emory University.

“Humans experience emotional engagement with characters, empathizing with happiness, sadness, or other emotions displayed by the characters,” says Campbell. “Previous studies have suggested this type of emotional engagement may be to blame when children mimic violent video games and cartoons, so we thought it important to learn more.”

The researchers used contagious yawning to test empathetic response. “Yawns are contagious in the same way other emotional responses, like smiles, frowns, and fear, are contagious,” says Campbell.

He and his team at the at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center showed chimpanzees 3-D animations of chimpanzees yawning and showing control mouth movements. The chimpanzees yawned significantly more in response to the yawning animations than they did to the animations showing control mouth movements.

“Yawning in response to the animated yawns showed an empathetic reaction to the animations,” says Campbell. “Because they showed only involuntary responses to the animations, we believe they empathized with the animations, while knowing they were artificial.

“This is important for us to know because we can present animations in future experiments knowing the chimpanzees will identify with the animations as if they are other chimpanzees. This opens up the possibility of using animations in many other types of studies,” Campbell adds.

Researchers next plan to show chimpanzees improved and degraded animations of chimpanzee yawns to see how they respond to more and less lifelike animations. This may help researchers understand whether different aspects of animations make them more or less likely to be imitated.

“Such knowledge could tell us how to design animations for children to promote imitation when used therapeutically, as with children with autism spectrum disorder, or to limit imitation when used for entertainment, as with video games,” says Campbell.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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