Why Is Yawning So Contagious?

Why Is Yawning So Contagious?

Have you ever yawned because someone else yawned? You aren’t especially tired, yet suddenly your mouth opens wide and a big yawn comes out. This phenomenon is known as contagious yawning. About half of adults yawn after someone else yawns 

Even thinking about yawning can cause you to do it. It’s something everybody does, including animals, and you shouldn’t try to stifle it because when you yawn, it’s because your body needs it. It’s one of the most contagious, uncontrollable actions a body does.

In fact, it’s so contagious that you don’t even have to see another person yawning to yawn yourself. Sometimes, all it takes is just hearing a yawn or thinking about one. You may even be yawning right now.

Similar to the mystery surrounding why we yawn, experts also aren’t really sure why yawns are so contagious.

Why Do We Yawn?

Experts classify yawns into two types: A yawn that occurs on its own, which experts call spontaneous yawning, and a yawn that occurs after seeing someone else do it, which experts call contagious yawning.

But, whether spontaneous or contagious, why do we even do it in the first place?

As it turns out, we don’t really know why we yawn.

Some theories, however, are that yawning helps:

  • Regulate your brain temperature
  • Wake your body up
  • Bring more oxygen into your bloodstream
  • Keep your lung tissue lubricated

Why Is Yawning Contagious?

Why Is Yawning So Contagious?

Yawning is definitely contagious. And while scientists still don’t fully understand why it happens, there are many hypotheses currently being researched.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most prevalent ones, both physiological and psychological.

1. Fixed action pattern

The first physiological hypothesis states that contagious yawning is triggered by a specific stimulus, an initial yawn. This is called fixed action pattern. Think of fixed action pattern like a reflex. Someone’s yawn makes you yawn. Similar to a domino effect, one person’s yawn triggers a yawn in a person nearby that has observed the act.

Once this reflex is triggered, it must run its course. Have you ever tried to stop a yawn once it has begun? Basically impossible.

2. The chameleon effect

Another physiological hypothesis is known as non-conscious mimicry, or the chameleon effect. This occurs when you imitate someone’s behavior without knowing it, a subtle and unintentional copycat maneuver.

People tend to mimic each other’s postures. If you are seated across from someone that has their legs crossed, you might cross your own legs.

This hypothesis suggests that we yawn when we see someone else yawn because we are unconsciously copying his or her behavior. Scientists believe that this chameleon effect is possible because of a special set of neurons known as mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that responds equally when we perform an action as when we see someone else perform the same action.

These neurons are important for learning and self-awareness. For example, watching someone do something physical, like knitting or putting on lipstick, can help you do those same actions more accurately.

When we see someone yawn or even hear their yawn, a specific area of the brain housing these mirror neurons tends to light up. This, in turn, causes us to respond with the same action: a yawn.

3. The empathy yawn

The psychological hypothesis also involves the work of these mirror neurons. Let’s call it the empathy yawn.

Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling and partake in their emotion, a crucial ability for social animals like us. Neuroscientists have found that a subset of mirror neurons allows us to emphathize with others’ feelings at a deeper level (yawn).

Scientists discovered this empathetic response to yawning while testing the first hypothesis we mentioned, fixed action pattern. This study was set up to show that dogs would enact a yawn reflex at the mere sound of a human yawn. While their study showed this to be true, they found something else interesting. Dogs yawned more frequently at familiar yawns, such as from their owners, than at unfamiliar yawns from strangers.

Following this research, other studies on humans and primates have also shown that contagious yawning occurs more frequently among friends than strangers.

In fact, contagious yawning starts occurring when we are about four or five years old, at the point when children develop the ability to identify others’ emotions properly.

Still, while newer scientific studies aim to prove that contagious yawning is based on this capacity for empathy, more research is needed to shed light on what exactly is going on. It’s possible that the answer lies in another hypothesis altogether.

The next time you get caught in a yawn, take a second to think about what just happened. Were you thinking about a yawn? Did someone near you yawn? Was that person a stranger or someone close? And are you yawning right now?

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