STRANGEBUTTRUE- Dog yawns: May mean she empathizes with you


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. When man yawns, what does "man's best friend" do?—A. Pontuso

A. Dogs watching a person repeatedly yawn will yawn themselves, reports Atsushi Senja of the University of London, in Biology Letters.

When confronted with wide, sighing yawns, breeds ranging from dachshunds to Dobermans followed suit. But when the trigger person only opened his mouth quietly, this did not do the trick. Of the 29 dogs tested, 21 yawned at least once. 

This strongly suggests dogs may have some empathic capacity, says Gordon Gallup Jr. of the State University of New York at Albany. Empathy, or the ability to grasp what someone else feels, may depend on some of the same neural circuitry triggered in contagious yawning.

Though it's not clear why the yawns spread, concludes Susan Milius in Science News, studies do suggest that domesticated dogs have evolved superior powers to read and react to the waves, shouts, and whatever of the primates that fill their food bowls.

Q. Which have been perhaps the fiercest six-legged soldiers in the history of warfare? –R.E. Lee

A. In Rudyard Kipling's Second Jungle Book, the hero enlists the aid of a colony of bellicose bees to beat back a pack of wild dogs, says Jeffrey Lockwood in Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.

The creature Kipling may have had in mind is the giant honeybee of Asia, or Apis dorsata, described as "the most ferocious and deadly stinging insect on Earth." These bees are not only larger but attack in huge numbers (a colony comb can be 10 feet across) and will pursue an intruder 100 yards or more.

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong are said to have carefully relocated colonies of these bees to enemy trails, then attached a fire cracker to the comb. 

"When a patrol passed within striking range, a patiently waiting VC would set off the charge. The infuriated insects delivered painful stings and drove the soldiers into dangerous disarray," Lockwood writes.

The North Vietnamese reportedly trained their insect conscripts to attack anyone in an American uniform, a not implausible tactic as bees are capable of associative learning, such as relating particular colors and shapes to rich sources of nectar.

While communist forces were running training camps for bees, the Americans attempted to develop chemicals that would redirect the bees to counterattack. "Although bees were hardly decisive weapons," Lockwood continues, "the insects played one of the strangest roles in the history of unconventional weaponry."

Q. What's a fascinating way we all "put ourselves in other people's shoes," at least from the neck up? –L. Parsons

A. We humans are obsessed with faces, our own and others, says Carl Zimmer in Discover magazine. Also, we all tend to mimic the facial expressions of those we see around us, from infancy onward, which is why human emotions in a group are so contagious. Further, when the face forms a certain emotion, another part of the brain that becomes active during facial mimicry sends emotional signals to the rest of the body (dubbed "facial feedback"). 

In other words, we don't just go though the facial motions, we also go through the emotions: Smile with the people around you and you'll actually feel some of the same happiness.

In an inadvertent test of this theory, European cosmetic researchers used Botox and other drugs to make frowning more difficult, in hopes of slowing the growth of unwanted lines around the eyebrows. A bizarre side effect of this was to reduce patients' susceptibility to the angry or unhappy faces around them and thus via facial feedback to make them feel happier overall! 

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Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@cs.com.