Follow-up from Matthew Campbell

The whole child empathy thing. I wrote to the scientist who gave the lecture and he replied:

There is a study that looked at contagious yawning in children of different ages. They found that children younger than 5 did not show it, so your observation fits in with this. I’m a little surprised by this simply because contagious yawning is involuntary, and it’s been observed in monkeys and dogs which do not show complex theory-of-mind (it’s debated whether chimpanzees do or not).

More complexity comes because children do show other rudimentary signs of empathy from birth. Babies in a nursery will cry when another cries in a sign of emotional contagion, that simplest form of empathy I talked about.

By year 1-2, kids show signs of concern if someone is in distress. I’m sure you’ve seen something like this in your daughter. It’s not sophisticated “targeted helping”, but it is empathy/sympathy. They feel the emotion and try to comfort, they just don’t know how to yet.

Why contagious yawning does not appear to come online until later is a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps there are some other forms of automatic emotional/motor mirroring that come online at the same time, and it would be interesting to know if theory-of-mind development is casually related (and not just a coincidence of timing). Unfortunately, we do not have any young chimpanzees (we are not breeding). If we did, we would definitely look at the development of contagious yawning in them.

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