Friday, February 02, 2007

Moral Minds - On Yawning and Empathy


I read this most fascinating book by Mark Hauser. He argues that we as a species have developed a universal moral instinct guiding our ethical decision making. Here's a snippet from the book - sort of my end of the week type quote:
'In my discussion of empathy in humans, I mentioned the interesting observation that people who are more empathetic are more susceptible to yawning. Yawning is generally contagious. But it is really contagious if you have a big heart, unable to turn off your compassion for others. Based on this correlation between yawning and empathy, the psychologist James Anderson wondered whether other animals might also be susceptible to contagious yawning. 39 Captive chimpanzees watched videos of other chimpanzees yawning and doing other things. Though inconsistent across individuals, some individuals consistently yawned back. We can't say that the yawners are empathetic while the non-yawners are not. What we can say is that given the observation that contagious yawning is a signature of empathy in humans, it is possible that the same holds true for chimpanzees and other species. This possibility, as well as other observations of caring in animals, sets up a more specific look for empathy.'

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