Have you ever seen someone in mid-yawn and had the sudden urge to yawn as well? You’re among good company. A vast majority of people can’t help but follow suit when they see someone yawn either in a photo or in real life.
It’s not just humans that do this either. Animals like dogs and chimpanzees are also susceptible to contagious yawning. But why is that? Why is yawning contagious?
Why Is Yawning Contagious? The Science Behind Yawning
Yawning has many triggers: boredom, fatigue, and temperature – research shows that humans yawn in order to regulate brain temperature. In fact, yawning frequency varies with the seasons, and humans are likely to yawn less when the outdoor temperature exceeds body temperature.
When we’re bored or tired, it’s believed that the human body takes in less oxygen due to a slowing of the breath. By yawning, the body is able to take in more oxygen and direct it towards the blood, while moving more carbon dioxide away from it.
So, why do humans feel the compulsion to yawn when they see someone yawn out of restlessness or sleepiness?
According to science, contagious yawning is triggered by primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for motor function. Contagious yawning is also a form of echophenomenon, which is an automatic imitation of another person’s words or actions.
Contagious Yawning and Empathy
Furthermore, the urge to yawn is dependent on the individual. Empathy is one of the core psychological factors behind contagious yawning, which suggests that psychopaths and sociopaths might be immune to the phenomenon.
Researchers from Baylor University had 135 subjects take the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised, then had each go through a contagious yawn experiment. The less empathetic the subject, the less likely they were to yawn in response to seeing another yawn.
The same can be said for those with autism. Studies have shown that children on the autism spectrum are less susceptible to contagious yawning.
Yawning is also more contagious around those you share a strong bond with. A study from the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome found that yawning is more frequent when done after seeing a loved one yawn. However, there might be a limitation in this study, as humans are more likely to notice when someone they know yawns versus a stranger.
One potential benefit of this response? Increased alertness throughout a group. Since yawning cools down the brain, it also increases alertness and mental efficiency. This would have been a major advantage for groups during more primitive times, when humans needed to be more on alert for an impending attack or dangers.
More Facts About Yawning
You now know that yawning is contagious, and that it might have to do with the imitator’s level of empathy. Here are some other facts about this involuntary reflex that won’t have you yawning from boredom:
- Babies yawn while still in their mother’s womb. It can occur as early as 20 weeks after conception – several ultrasounds even show fetuses as young as 11 weeks yawning. Is it really that boring in there?
- Even thinking or reading about yawning can cause you to yawn – did you just yawn when you read this?
- The average yawn lasts about six seconds.
- Yawning isn’t just contagious between humans. Your dog is likely to yawn after seeing you do the same.
It’s interesting to know that yawning just doesn’t occur because you’re bored – you might be empathizing with someone else that’s bored as well. Cure their boredom with some of your newfound yawn knowledge!