Why is Yawning Contagious?

A stranger yawns nearby. You yawn. You read a meme about yawning. You yawn. You hear someone talking about yawning. You yawn. We’ve all been there. It would be no surprise if, while reading this, you yawn a few times; we can only hope it isn’t a result of boredom but actually one of neural reasoning!

Believe it or not, psychologists and neurologists have long been trying to understand the phenomenon of contagious yawning, and most research has led to one interesting theory: that yawn mimicry is an unconscious form of empathy. Say again? Let’s discuss a few studies to corroborate this.

Image by: Marc Rosenthal

A study conducted by Platek et al. 2005, observed the stimulation of specific brain centers when exposed to someone yawning. These neural areas, the posterior cingulate and precuneus, are associated with self-processing and the recollection of autobiographical memories. In other words, they are responsible for distinguishing one’s own emotional state over others. What is interesting is that these exact brain centers are known to be connected to empathy and compassion. 

“Contagious yawning has to do with empathy and compassion.”

While the study mentioned previously observed human brain activity, research performed by Palagi et al. 2009 focused on gelada baboons; this study is equally beneficial because it not only discusses a close relative of us humans but also is able to have more freedom to manipulate experiments. One such experimental design involved observing contagious yawning between socially close individuals vs distant individuals. The study’s findings navigate toward the theory of empathy; yawning was more contagious in baboons with high levels of grooming contact – basically, baboons that were socially intimate!

Gelada baboon yawning by: Jeremy Woodhouse

So there is some evidence for empathy as an unconscious reason behind contagious yawns; neurological, psychological, and ecological data seem to substantiate this odd correlation in primates, humans included. But does correlation mean causation? Good scientists are always cautious of making firm conclusions from flimsy data and you should be too! So let’s bring up another study to really hit home with this theory of empathy.

Senju et al. 2007 put the theory of empathy to test by observing contagious yawning in human children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). When two groups – ASD and non-ASD – were shown videos of people yawning, ASD children showed a significantly lower response to yawns compared to non-ASD children. Since individuals with ASD are known for lacking skills in empathy and compassion, these findings add on to the theory of brain empathy and contagious yawning.

So what can we really do with this information besides sharing it with someone the next time you yawn together? The science community has already begun to make inferences based on this theory; bear in mind that it is not yet a solid, confirmed theory but is still highly supported. For instance, Mascheroni et al. 2008 played with the theory by studying the yawning behavior of dogs; specifically, human yawns being contagious to dog yawns. By catching dogs yawning to human yawns, their findings indicate that dogs could possess empathy toward humans!

American Staffordshire Terrier from the American Kennel Club

What do you think about the theory of empathy as a way to explain contagious yawning? If yawning is indeed an evolutionary form of unconscious empathy, what explains when people are triggered to yawn simply by mentioning or reading the word? Do you have any theories behind this scientific mystery? Let us know in the comments!


References

Joly-Mascheroni, R. M., Senju, A., & Shepherd, A. J. (2008). Dogs catch human yawns. Biology Letters, 4(5), 446-448.

Palagi, E., Leone, A., Mancini, G., & Ferrari, P. F. (2009). Contagious yawning in gelada baboons as a possible expression of empathy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(46), 19262-19267.

Platek, S. M., Mohamed, F. B., & Gallup Jr, G. G. (2005). Contagious yawning and the brain. Cognitive brain research, 23(2-3), 448-452.

Senju, A., Maeda, M., Kikuchi, Y., Hasegawa, T., Tojo, Y., & Osanai, H. (2007). Absence of contagious yawning in children with autism spectrum disorder. Biology letters, 3(6), 706-708.

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