Is yawning contagious?

- asks Jamie from Wales

Is yawning really contagious? [Credit: Enterprise Linux Log].
By | Posted September 24, 2007
Posted in: Ever Wondered?, Life Science
Tags: ,

Several years ago in a faraway land, I took a memorable psychology class from a professor whose interest in the field seemed to be motivated, at least in part, by a desire to unearth new tricks for beguiling the opposite sex. Ethical implications aside, his lectures were generously garnished with anecdotes that held his wide-eyed freshmen audience in rapt attention.

Among the tips he shared was a psychologically based method for casually gauging just who might be checking you out in a crowded place: yawning. The theory goes that if you yawn, anyone who’s surreptitiously watching you won’t be able to resist yawning too, giving themselves away (and marking them as a susceptible target for wooing).

The trick is based on a real phenomenon called “contagious yawning,” in which seeing, hearing, or even thinking about someone else yawning causes you to follow suit. The biological function of yawning is debatable and there are several kinds of yawns that may signal everything from fatigue to aggression. But contagiously opening your yapper in a yawn seems to be distinct from doing so spontaneously, based on the fact that the former does not occur in all animals. In other words, plenty of animals yawn, but not all animals mimic one another’s yawns.

Whether or not seeing someone else’s jaws gaping wide gives you the uncontrollable urge to join in may say more about your personality than you realize. Roughly half of people yawn when watching videos of others yawning. Some researchers hypothesize that contagious yawning is more common in people with greater empathy — the ability to recognize and share other people’s emotions — an idea that has gotten quite a bit of press lately.

Developmental clues support the empathy theory for contagious yawns. Children younger than about four years old, it seems, yawn spontaneously but don’t catch contagious yawns from adults or from one another. Neither do many older children with autism spectrum disorder, who have an impaired ability to communicate, socialize, and empathize, according to a paper published this summer in Biology Letters. The authors found that children with autism yawned spontaneously about as often as children without autism. But when watching videos of yawning adults, children with autism yawned fewer times than other children. They believe this supports the claim that contagious yawning is based on the capacity for empathy.

Indeed, studies of what’s actually happening in the brain when we see others yawn also seem to support the empathy explanation. For example, in 2005, researchers used an imaging technique called fMRI to see what happens in the brain when people see others yawn. The images showed that in the person seeing the yawn, there was increased activity in the part of the brain involved in self-processing, a region believed to be related to empathy.

Contagious yawning is not a strictly human habit, though. Research shows that a couple animals related to our species, like chimps, do it too. In one study, British and Japanese researchers showed six female chimps videos of other female chimps that were either yawning or just opening their mouths. A third of the chimps yawned significantly more when watching other chimps yawn, while none of them yawned when watching the non-yawns.

So, yes, it seems that my professor was on to something with his yawning scheme. Not only does research show that yawning is contagious, it suggests yawning weeds out the starers who are a bit less empathetic (too bad the yawning trick won’t weed out the chimps, too).

Related Posts


comments

All comments are moderated, your comment will not appear on the site until it has been approved.

  1. Of course, if it’s a boring lecture you may just find that everyone else is yawning. But, more worryingly, what if someone is playing this mind game on you and you yawn at just the wrong time? You could end up being “wooed” unwittingly yourself”

    db

    David Bradley, October 8, 2007 at 11:17 am
  2. yawning is a phyischal reflex you yawn contagiously when the mirror nuerons in yoir brain acknolege a nother yawn

    check out worldscience.net
    i spell wrong on purpose

    jo bob, November 17, 2007 at 6:26 pm
  3. Jo-Bob, you need to go back and read worldscience.net’s report. It specifically states it has nothing to do with mirror neurons.

    Specifically stated, “Mirror neurons typically become active when a person consciously imitates an action of someone else, a process associated with learning. But they seem to play no role in yawn contagiousness.”

    You have to read after the BUT part. They offer theories on it but have no conclusive answer.

    Beth, December 10, 2007 at 7:35 pm
  4. o fu is florda university

    john doe, March 13, 2008 at 11:34 am
  5. this was boring. ahha.
    but it helped with my science porject.
    :]

    Cecilia, May 20, 2008 at 6:57 am
  6. im never yawning again!!!! i do everything i can 2 keep from b-ing “wooed” & yet im always the girl w/ the stalker… if yawning=wooing target count me out!! x__x aye chihuahua!

    steph, May 20, 2008 at 3:40 pm
  7. I always wondered why I yawned when someone else yawned. I am amiable. Strangely though, I have been made to yawn without seeing or hearing the other person. It’s some other force that can’t be explained. To common to be coincidence. Try it. Yawn while staring at someone that does’nt see you. they will yawn too. I’m yawning right now. You will kyawn while reading this. 1am , good night.

    John e. b., June 14, 2008 at 4:15 am
  8. Did the videos have sound? Was there a test of just the sounds but no images? The presence of both may have implications but I do remember someone saying that he was asking “who’s yawing in the back seat because it’s making me yawn?”

    John, August 18, 2008 at 10:45 pm
  9. one of my lecturers says that we probably yawn so that we recirculate the fliuds in hte thoracic cavity which apparently sink (gravity)..so when you’ve been stationary for too long sitting or standing ..you yawn

    Patches, October 8, 2008 at 10:00 am
  10. BORING.

    but it helped with my science project![:

    Courtney, October 17, 2008 at 12:54 pm
  11. ahhhh it’s contagious alright but whenever i see a picture of hear anyone else yawning i yawn it really is contagious if u ask me

    shadow, November 5, 2008 at 5:55 pm
  12. I yawn when I get out to the table for breakfast, and my Mommy says “hi Squarehead”,every morning.

    Erod Elmos, November 14, 2008 at 7:08 pm
  13. i yawn everyday…. :D

    i didnt know it was because of all of this!!!

    laura, November 17, 2008 at 10:42 am
  14. i yaw everyday..
    i didnt know it was beacuse of this!!

    laura, November 17, 2008 at 10:42 am
  15. *yawn* Helpful.

    Jane Doe, November 24, 2008 at 6:02 pm
  16. This article was the perfect resource I needed to piece together a research paper on contagious yawning. Thanks guys

    Joe Shmo, January 3, 2009 at 2:37 pm
  17. WELL…I KNOW I YARN TOO, EVEN WHEN I SEE THE WORD…YEA I MUST HAVE IT REALLY BAD.:-D I WONDER THOUGH…COULD THIS BE TRIGGERED BY THE LACK OF REST PEOPLE GET, I GET, LOL, BUT SERIOUSLY THOUGH…WITH, SEEMS LIKE, EVERYBODY IS ON THE GO OR REALLY BUSY, BEING BURNED OUT, LEAVES US VULNERABLE TO THINGS SUCH AS YARNING WHEN WE SEE OTHERS YARN? JUST WANTED TO KNOW

    Tee It's Me, January 5, 2009 at 1:27 pm
  18. buahahahaha

    .::just smile and wave::., February 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm
  19. im stupid and i yawn a lot……im so stupid and dumbbalshdkjfdgd and my re

    nick oldham, March 10, 2009 at 8:51 am
  20. im a but hole and i yawn a lot

    nick oldham, March 10, 2009 at 8:51 am
  21. im a lesbo

    mckenzie b, March 10, 2009 at 8:52 am
  22. YAWING IS GOOD

    ur mum, April 20, 2009 at 9:24 am
  23. I yawned while reading the article, while reading the comments, ((while typing this))..

    Lolzroxerzboxerz, May 4, 2009 at 5:06 am
  24. I yawned 3 times reading this. Make that 4.

    Mike, June 19, 2009 at 1:52 pm
  25. here is a sweet video explaing yawning. it looks at brain fuction to explain why the are contagious

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqG4G5Z02YQ

    Ben Buchanan, July 31, 2009 at 4:20 am
  26. I litterally yawned 5 times reading this

    CC, September 13, 2009 at 1:54 pm
  27. MythBusters had no conclusive evidence that yawning were contagious: http://mythbustersresults.com/episode28

    Paradigm Shifts, September 24, 2009 at 9:08 pm
  28. is smiling contagious or what do other people think for a science experiment

    justine moton, October 13, 2009 at 12:40 pm
  29. is smiling contagious or what do other people think it is cuz i do

    justine moton, October 13, 2009 at 12:42 pm
  30. haha i yawned 6 imes while reading this (mostly after reading the word yawn)

    rugerty100, October 13, 2009 at 9:03 pm
  31. i yawned like 6 times lol my eyes get watery every time i yawn

    greg, January 11, 2010 at 2:19 pm
  32. i yawned 4 times reading this

    ( ^.^), April 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm
  33. I just couldn’t help myself, as much as I was aware that the article was making me want to yawn, I couldn’t stop!

    Gerrie, June 27, 2010 at 5:17 pm
  34. YAWNING IS SOO CONTAGIOUS… watch me yawn once and see if u dont….!!! lol

    Cody, November 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm
  35. I only yawned once during reading this article you people need to learn to have some self-control and stop yawning cause you think it’s contagious

    Stantheman, November 8, 2012 at 6:49 am
  36. On top of the I haven’t slept in almost 24 hrs

    Stantheman, November 8, 2012 at 6:49 am
  37. Guess what? I didn’t yawn even once while reading every word of this article. even staring at the man in the picture yawning couldnt make me yawn. I am thinking of yawning from morning. but i still can’t yawn. I have a big belly and I have been eating every day full stomach and I am super relaxed and bored. I don’t suffer from autism and yes you have my empathy guys.

    there is more research to be done.
    I still haven’t yawned and I am bored with this article and the comments. even writing this boring comment didn’t make me yawn.

    Sam, November 29, 2013 at 6:26 am
  38. and no even after writing and reading my comment again i didn’t YAWN!!

    Sam, November 29, 2013 at 6:28 am
post your comment