Why Yawns Are Contagious

We’ve all been there. Sitting around with a group of friends or co-workers and someone yawns. Then almost without pause, you yawn too.

First off, what is a yawn and why do we do it?

Robert Provine, a Neuroscientist and yawn expert (that’s a thing apparently) at the University of Maryland, says its “ancient and automatic.” It goes way back in our evolution and occurs across all sorts of creatures.  In a 2004 study, researchers found yawns are even contagious across certain animals.  He says it comes from the core parts of the brain where they are so basic that they don’t even qualify as reflexes.

There have been many hypotheses over the years as to why we yawn. Those ranged from being a way to bring in fresh oxygen to the body or as a means to remove the bad air from the deep parts lungs.  Most of these ideas have proved invalid.

The latest thinking is that yawning is a way for the body to cool down the brain. Think of it as if yawning as the equivalent to A/C for the brain. In a study conducted by psychology professor Andrew Gallup, participants who held a cool pack on their heads only yawned 9% of the time versus 41% of the time with those participants that held a cool pack to their head.

Discovery put together a video that explains this in detail.

Why do I yawn when someone else does?

In 2010, a study from the University of Connecticut found contagious yawning only readily appeared in children over four years old.   In addition, children with autism were less likely to yawn when watching others yawn.  This led researchers to think that contagious yawning was related to the development of emotion and social skills.

One of the main theories on why yawns were contagious related empathy.  According to Smithsonian, researchers believe that animals and humans yawn when they see someone else doing it as a way to indicate you understand and feel another’s emotions. Matthew Campbell, a researcher at Emory University, relates to how when we see smile smile or frown we tend to mimic their expressions.   “It isn’t a deliberate attempt to empathize with you,” Campbell says. “It’s just a byproduct of how our bodies and brains work.”

However, in 2014 one of the most comprehensive yawning studies to date challenged that empathy theory. In watching groups of people in different age groups, they found there was a “lack of association in our study between contagious yawning and empathy suggests that contagious yawning is not simply a product of one’s capacity for empathy”.

Ultimately, there is still a lot we need to learn and understand about our bodies and why yawns are contagious. In the meantime, watch this video and see if you make it to the end without yawning.

Photo by lambatofa