CEU Faculty Wins Ig Nobel Prize in Physiology

October 10, 2011

Natalie Sebanz, Associate Professor at the Department of Cognitive Science, is part of an international team of researchers who received this year's Ig Nobel Prize in physiology. Prof. Sebanz, who at the time of writing the study was working at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands, teamed up with fellow researchers Anna Wilkinson (Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria and Department of Biological Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK), Isabella Mandl (Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria), and Ludwig Huber (Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria). The team received the honor for their paper “No evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria” which showed in a series of experiments that tortoises do not yawn contagiously.

The winning paper explains that three hypotheses have attempted to explain the phenomenon of contagious yawning. Previously, it has been hypothesized that it is a fixed action pattern for which the releasing stimulus is the observation of another yawn, that it is the result of non-conscious mimicry emerging through close links between perception and action, or that it is the result of empathy, involving the ability to engage in mental state attribution. The set of experiments by the international team of researchers sought to distinguish between these hypotheses, by examining contagious yawning in a species that is unlikely to show non-conscious mimicry and empathy, but does respond to social stimuli: the red-footed tortoise Geochelone carbonaria. The resulting research (published in [Current Zoology 57 (4): 477–484, 2011]) suggests that contagious yawning is not the result of a fixed action pattern, but may involve more complex social processes.

The Ig Nobel Prizes draw attention to scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect. The stated aim of the prize is to “first make people laugh and then make them think.” They are awarded each year in early October for 10 unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research, by a group that includes Nobel Laureates. The ceremony takes place at Harvard University's Sanders Theater, and is followed by a set of public lectures by the winners at MIT. When asked about the award, Prof. Sebanz said that she was very pleased to be awarded the Ig Nobel as “it highlights the fact that research has a playful and sometimes even comical side.”

Learn more about the Ig Nobel Prizes at http://improbable.com/ig/  or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ig_Nobel_Prize