Why do I Yawn When I See Someone Else Yawning?

Yawning yet? Well, give it some time and you will be soon enough.

See a person yawning around you, you will end up yawning. Catch someone else watching you? Soon, they’ll be yawning as well. Even writing this article and typing the word ‘yawning’ has that contagious effect.

Why does this happen? According to Italian scientists, yawning is like an act of transmission, the same as a smile or a mere hug. This is one of the many ways humans, and even animals, connect – an emotional expression.

image credits: Marc Rosenthal
image credits: Marc Rosenthal

Yesterday, in a so-boring-you-could-cry economics class, even though I had had a great night’s sleep, my professor caught me yawning right in the middle of her lecture. The reason for this was that I had just been watching my friend, a partying enthusiast who had no doubt had a late night, shielding her sleepy self with a textbook.

Little did I know, human instinct had played a part in inducing me to yawn. That instinct is generated by the brain and the social atmosphere which binds with the brain and emotional functionality of individuals.

How is yawning contagious?

This was researched upon by many scientists as a prime area of interest; they found out that it is similar to any other human action. Studies have proven how it is more of a social phenomenon where the act is performed between humans and animals unconsciously.

image credits: Ona Linda Johnson
image credits: Ona Linda Johnson

The instinct of self-recognition and self-awareness triggers the yawning catch, making it fast and automatic.

Neuroscience describes the phenomenon in detail where it analyses the brain’s functions as to how different parts operated during a video screened in front of the study’s participants. It was observed that the temporal sulcus was active in each hemisphere. These parts are directly linked to social activation, not to the mirror neuron system which associates with the mind theory. The participants who yawned also had a decreased activity in their left periamygdalar region, which affects facial expressions.

The two findings are rather complex and somewhat do not support Platek’s theory. It is rather evident that the theories of mind abilities do not have any direct link to contagious yawning. An imaging study carried out by Platek used videos containing yawning and matched them in contrast with laughing and neutral videos; the results state that yawning videos stimulated those regions of the brain that entail memory, emotions and the ability to asses one’s own self. Thus, this forms a dichotomy where Platek’s findings can be applied to his own theory but not with the sole imaging study regarding contagious yawning.

Not only is this not limited to humans, but contagious yawning has also been found present in chimpanzees – this is a result of their instinctive sense of self-awareness and empathy. Chimpanzees share this trait with their in-group species; they will yawn if they see their group members yawning. This is similar to experiencing pain if another member does. Interestingly, dogs have been observed to “catch” a yawn from their owners.

Yawns – Connecting people.

As mentioned earlier, like chimpanzees having the greater yawning tendency with their in-group members, humans share that close bond with their friends and blood relations. Yawns do not get passed on just like that, it is more of a “best-friend” thing. It has been claimed by several researchers that the closer you are to someone, the higher the chances of catching a yawn. This is where the empathy theory can be perfectly applied. This is how humans or animals connect and the social atmosphere bond between them is strengthened.

image credits: Ona Linda Johnson

Hold in your yawns, we’re almost finished!

In conclusion, we can see that contagious yawning cannot be defined or explained without ambiguity. The social information process does play a significant role in acting as a trigger but what other factors are involved in bringing about this phenomena are yet to be found. It cannot be said for certain that factors like empathy and awareness of one’s self are agents to stimulate this. For now, all we can do is catch a good night’s sleep.

P.S. Did you yawn while reading this article? Tell us in comments!