Life Science

Is yawning contagious?

- asks Jamie from Wales

September 24, 2007
Is yawning really contagious? [Credit: Enterprise Linux Log].
Is yawning really contagious? [Credit: Enterprise Linux Log].

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).

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Discussion

38 Comments

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

jo bob says:

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

Beth says:

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.

john doe says:

o fu is florda university

Cecilia says:

this was boring. ahha.
but it helped with my science porject.
:]

steph says:

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!

John e. b. says:

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 says:

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?”

Patches says:

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

Courtney says:

BORING.

but it helped with my science project![:

shadow says:

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

Erod Elmos says:

I yawn when I get out to the table for breakfast, and my Mommy says “hi Squarehead”,every morning.

laura says:

i yawn everyday…. :D

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

laura says:

i yaw everyday..
i didnt know it was beacuse of this!!

Jane Doe says:

*yawn* Helpful.

Joe Shmo says:

This article was the perfect resource I needed to piece together a research paper on contagious yawning. Thanks guys

Tee It's Me says:

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

.::just smile and wave::. says:

buahahahaha

nick oldham says:

im stupid and i yawn a lot……im so stupid and dumbbalshdkjfdgd and my re

nick oldham says:

im a but hole and i yawn a lot

mckenzie b says:

im a lesbo

ur mum says:

YAWING IS GOOD

Lolzroxerzboxerz says:

I yawned while reading the article, while reading the comments, ((while typing this))..

Mike says:

I yawned 3 times reading this. Make that 4.

Ben Buchanan says:

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

CC says:

I litterally yawned 5 times reading this

MythBusters had no conclusive evidence that yawning were contagious: http://mythbustersresults.com/episode28

is smiling contagious or what do other people think for a science experiment

is smiling contagious or what do other people think it is cuz i do

rugerty100 says:

haha i yawned 6 imes while reading this (mostly after reading the word yawn)

greg says:

i yawned like 6 times lol my eyes get watery every time i yawn

( ^.^) says:

i yawned 4 times reading this

Gerrie says:

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!

Cody says:

YAWNING IS SOO CONTAGIOUS… watch me yawn once and see if u dont….!!! lol

Stantheman says:

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 says:

On top of the I haven’t slept in almost 24 hrs

Sam says:

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 says:

and no even after writing and reading my comment again i didn’t YAWN!!

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