Why is yawning contagious?

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How many times

Did you yawn after seeing or hearing someone yawn? Or perhaps you had the same effect on the people around you once you yawned? You may have noticed that it is extremely hard to resist the urge to yawn, once you see someone doing it.

Why is this happening? Specialists call this phenomenon collective yawning; studies showing that half of the adults out there will yawn after seeing another person doing it. Do you think we do it out of empathy, due to low energy levels, or because we feel tired? Researchers say that these factors are less likely to be behind contagious yawning, because two or more people found in the same room may not feel all tired or sleepy at once. Still, there are changes for people to yawn together out of empathy.

So you feel the other’s person state of mind when he or she yawns and, as a reaction, you do the same, instead of saying “yes, I know how it feels”.


Image by – express

Researchers in England

Found out that we feel the need to imitate another person that yawned due to certain motor functions in our brain. The response of our brain is pure imitation, a reaction to what we see; this is why it is so hard to resist it. Just try to stop yawning once you see someone doing it and you’ll realize just how hard it is, if not even impossible sometimes. Just like some people like to imitate others by repeating their actions or words, most of us like to imitate this particular gesture. Having in mind that yawning is considering as a way for the brain to relax, it’s no wonder our mind chose this to imitate each time it gets the right trigger, which is an image of someone else yawning, including your dog or cat.

But what scientists found

Is that not only humans are prone to contagious yawning. This phenomenon happens among chimpanzees and dogs as well. Recently, researchers discovered some new clues that may be able to explain this phenomenon.

eddy lee

Researchers from the UK strongly believe that collective yawns may have something to do with the human’s brain primitive reflexes.

The results were provided by an experiment that included 36 adults. During the experiment, the group had to watch videos of people yawning, while the researchers were measuring each participant’s brain activity. The experiment had two stages. In one they could yawn as much as they liked, while in the other they had to do their best to stop themselves from yawning. The researchers also conducted the same kind of experiment while using electrical impulses to control the motor cortex, which is believed to be the center of the brain that controls yawning. They were surprised to find out that there were a lot of muffled yawns in the experiment, which led them to the conclusion that we feel an increasing urge to yawn when we suppress this reflex.

Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps

Of course, not all the people involved in the experiment reacted in the same manner. Each person is vulnerable to yawns in a different manner. Most people are doing it out of empathy. There were studies that indicated the fact that children under the age of 4 will not “catch” a yawn if they see one. This is explained by their lack of empathy, which starts to develop only after the age of 4. The same happens in the case of young people that suffer from autism. Because they cannot feel empathy due to their condition, they are not exposed to contagious yawning like most of the people.

Thus, the more empathic you are with your peers, the more likely it is that you’ll yawn each time you’ll see, hear, or even read about yawns.

Another theory released

By scientists is that this is how the brain is made to react. It is something in the structure of our brain that we cannot change, something that makes us yawn each time we see someone else doing it. They believe that yawning was a form of communication among our primitive ancestors, used for bonding or announcing the presence of danger. In the case of parrots, for instance, scientists discovered that the incidence of yawning increased when the temperature of their environment increased as well. Thus, this made them believe that this particular behavior is a silent way of letting others know that something may be wrong.

Image by – sites.psu.edu

Scientists also believe that contagious yawning is tightly connected to someone’s age.

The younger a person is, the more likely he or she is to catching yawns from the people around them.

A study involving 328 people of various ages proved that this theory is valid. Thus, in this study, 82% of the people that had ages less than 25 years old, yawned when videos of other people yawning were shown. In the group of people that had ages between 25 and 49 years old, 60% showed signs of contagious yawning. While in the group of seniors, with ages above 49 years old, only a small percentage, more precisely 41%, were contagious yawners.

So, these are all potential theories issues by researchers after numerous studies. But, because this phenomenon happens inside our brain, a part of the human body that is not yet fully deciphered, the real roots of collective or contagious yawning are not really known. But, one thing is for sure, and that most of us do suffer from contagious yawning.


Feature Image – Soph-Kate

Giannis Sore

Giannis Sore

Giannis is an IT enginner from Athens.
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