Why Is Yawning So Contagious?

Can you make it through this post without yawning?

blog-why-do-we-yawn It’s approaching 3 p.m. and you find yourself in an endless chain of yawning as your interest in work dwindles and you think about how little sleep you got the night before. A cup of coffee might be your go-to fix, but yawning could continue, since it is more than a signal of being tired. Yawning is not even unique to humans. In fact, many members of the animal kingdom do it, and it stems from a fairly complicated system. Keep reading to discover why exactly we yawn and why it is a seemingly contagious phenomenon.

An alert system

Yawning has been the center of many scientific studies, because there have been so many theories about why it occurs. One theory is that people yawn due to a lack of oxygen in the brain. This is not exactly the reason why yawning occurs, but the deep breathing triggered by yawning does help pump air into the brain to cool it down, since the brain works best at a cooler operating temperature. The physiological response of yawning likely developed as a defense mechanism in animals to stay more alert and reduce vulnerability to predators. Now you might see people yawn at seemingly strange times, such as right before a big meeting or just before competing in an athletic event. This is the brain’s way of gearing up to perform, and it is triggered by a chemical response in dopamine receptors.

A social cue

blog-yawning-contagiousWhile you may yawn when you are by yourself, yawning is often a social behavior. You have probably noticed that when a coworker yawns at the office, you are suddenly doing the same. People are prone to contagious yawning because of our sense of empathy, or the ability to relate to others emotionally. Interestingly, individuals with schizophrenia or autism tend to be less affected by this response, since these conditions are characterized by a lack of empathy.

When strangers yawn – Since yawning developed as a system to keep the body alert, it is not surprising that it is a social activity. Since people are social creatures working in groups, yawning evolved as a way to ensure pack alertness when danger may be near. Stress and anxiety can raise the body temperature and cue a cooling yawn, which others will observe and copy unwittingly. This behavior still exists, though it is not always observed among strangers.

When friends yawn – You are actually more likely to yawn contagiously when you are around friends or family members. The deeper emotional or genetic connections you have with those close to you will make you more prone to copying their behaviors—especially those that have developed through a pack mentality.

Yawning fun facts

Yawning is definitely not a learned behavior. Even fetuses can yawn, and this seems to be an integral part of brain development. In the rest of us, the average yawn is about six seconds long, during which time the heart rate spikes dramatically. To continue learning fun facts about the human body and its somewhat strange habits, keep reading the MeMD blog and ask us your questions in the comments below!

Share Your Thoughts

  • Audrey Laiveling

    The pack mentality observation makes a lot of sense to me. I have heard a lot about the empathy theory to explain contagious yawning. I have also read that contagious yawning is a form of unconscious social mimicry, or “the chameleon effect.” If contagious yawning truly links to empathy, do you think this information would change how doctors treat autistic or schizophrenic patients? Would this information have any impacts at all?