The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Yawns, Mayhem, and Other Social Contagions

People in love are wildly attractive, a fact not lost on outsiders.

Messerschmidt's  The Yawner 1771-83
The current mayhem in the Muslim world is a stark reminder of how easily hatred, rumor, and suspicion can spread. The phenomenon is known as “social contagion.” A good number of passions can spread seamlessly from person to person—fears, anxieties, or irrational beliefs. Such sentiments can multiply, combine, and swell to infect large groups, giving rise to mob panics or hysteria.

      The peculiarity of contagion is rooted in the workings of emotional intelligence and our capacity to “read” others. It is a complex phenomenon quite unlike the simple monkey–see–monkey–do. Even behaviors not obviously tinged with emotion can become contagious.

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      Yawning is a prime example. It is so contagious that for many people just reading or thinking about it is enough to trigger a yawn. Sculpture, too. Recently my other half took me to New York’s Neue Gallerie on Fifth Avenue to see the “character heads” of Franz Messerschmidt, the eighteenth–century sculptor who famously broke away from standard studio poses to capture naturalistic attitudes and postures. In no time at all I was unable to stifle a yawn. Soon everybody in the gallery was fiercely yawning in a big feedback loop.

      You might think that looking at a yawner’s mouth is the trigger that sets off the reflex in you. But no, covering your mouth to conceal a yawn won’t keep it from spreading. It turns out that your yawn detector’s hard wiring is set to capture a wire range of grimaces, stretches, and contortions that constitute the body language of yawning. Moreover, autistic children, who are deficient at reading emotional cues, yawn spontaneously and just as normally as everyone else. They are immune, however, to contagious yawning, a manifestation of their ineffective socially connection.

      Now, what about the flip side where desirable feelings might become contagious? Just as laughing, crying, or indignation can spread so too can love beget love. Consider courtship for instance. Perhaps you are not taken with an admirer in the way he or she appears to be smitten with you. Despite the lack of interest, basking in another’s admiration and seeing yourself in the light of another’s flame can be enough inducement for you to fall in love yourself. While it is no doubt flattering to be on the receiving end, love’s real reward awaits in your own awakening to it.


The Chemistry of Romance makes it spread
The contagion of romance doesn’t limit itself to a single target. An individual who is head over heels is outgoing and highly attractive, a fact not lost on outside observers. They find it easy to smile and flirt, and may quickly fantasize themselves entangled in intimate scenarios. Lovers in love attract attention like flies, a magnetism that stems from love’s chemistry: Pheromones, physical radiance, and a newly–enlarged personality all conspire to make the beloved more approachable and open to new experiences. The fact that a handsome man or woman is already part of a couple makes boost their attractiveness to outsiders because they are already held in esteem by someone else, already possessed. So strange and universal is this attraction that inspired a commandment about not coveting they neighbor’s spouse.

      Should you find yourself buoyed for whatever reason why not give it away? You will discover that the results of spreading love, kindness, and goodwill around are far more pleasant than the other way around. 

Sored the good feelings around


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Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.


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