When you see someone yawning, do you feel the urge to yawn, too? This is called contagious yawning, and researchers have done numerous studies trying to determine why we do it. After all, we don’t tend to imitate every action we see. Why yawning? What makes it so special?
There are several theories for why we yawn when we see others doing it. While the consensus seems to be that we need to do more research to figure out why this happens, the results we have so far are interesting.
For years, people have wondered if contagious yawning is a sign of empathy. If this is true, then highly empathic people would be more likely to yawn than those with less empathic ability. One study that seems to support this shows that contagious yawning doesn’t begin until about age 4. Since this is also when empathy skills begin to develop, it would make sense that the two are connected.
Another study seemed to tie the two more directly: the more empathy a person had, the more likely they were to catch a yawn. This could mean that studying contagious yawning might have implications for autism and schizophrenia, as individuals with these disorders often have less empathy and also show less contagious yawning. However, this study has not been replicated, and other studies seem to indicate other causes for contagious yawning.
While yawning could be tied to something in the brain, there’s also a chance that it is no more than a reaction to the environment. One study shows that all yawning, including contagious yawning, is more likely to occur when the ambient temperature is right around 68 degrees.
Since yawning is associated with sleepiness and this is within the window of ideal sleep temperatures, it’s possible that the temperature triggers the brain to try and fall asleep. It’s also possible that yawning activates some sort of heating or cooling mechanism in the body, though that is purely theoretical at this point.
Yet another study shows that the only possible cause of contagious yawning is age. Young children don’t do it and the response slows down as we get older. However, this only accounts for 8% of the variation between people when it comes to the ability to catch a yawn. In some studies, though, it’s the only possible cause that stands out.
Whether age is a cause of contagious yawning remains to be proven. It may be that we gain and lose some other ability at certain ages, and it is this ability that allows us to catch a yawn from someone else.
It’s quite possible that contagious yawning has some evolutionary advantage. There’s some evidence that whether or not a person catches a yawn from someone else has to do with how much activity that person has in their motor cortex. The more activity, the more likely they are to yawn. When researchers stimulated that cortex with electricity, the propensity increased even more. This could mean that yawning has something to do with the fight or flight reflex: maybe it helps activate it or helps us move when movement is essential to survival.
Another study that supports this theory shows that yawning activates the amygdala. This part of the brain handles fear and heightens our attention. It is essential in activating the fight or flight reflex. Thinking evolutionarily, if yawning helps wake this part of the brain up so we can run, it makes sense that the whole group would move into action together. It follows, then, that one yawn would set off others until the entire group was ready to move.
Some researchers think that contagious yawning is nothing more than a social phenomenon. We think that yawning is contagious. So we yawn when we see other people yawn. In this theory, we don’t have to yawn when other people do. There’s no compulsion and nothing biological that causes us to do this. We simply believe that this is what happens, so we make it happen. If we believed differently, we would act differently, too.
These researchers are quick to point out that they may be wrong. Their main point is that we assume yawning is contagious, but we haven’t actually proven that. Before we study why we yawn contagiously, we should make sure that it’s an actual phenomenon and not a product of our imaginations.
For most of us, yawning feels good. Even if we don’t know why we yawn, especially when we aren’t particularly sleepy or bored, it seems to have a restful effect on the body. So there’s always a chance that, when we see someone doing something that is easy and feels good, we usually decide to do it, too.