Home Lifestyle The science behind why yawning is contagious

The science behind why yawning is contagious


Despite numerous theories, scientists have yet to reach a consensus on the precise causes of yawning. From maintaining brain temperature to social mirroring, yawning’s potential purposes continue to fascinate researchers.

The likelihood of yawning increases sixfold, according to one study, after seeing someone else yawn.Picture by Debashis RC Biswas/Unsplash.

YAWNING is something that is familiar to everyone. On average, adults yawn around 20 times per day and suppressing a yawn can be challenging once it starts.

Interestingly, being around others who yawn often triggers a contagious yawning response. While the exact reasons for yawning remain unknown, numerous theories exist to shed light on this intriguing behaviour.

One theory proposed by Dr Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing, suggests that yawning often occurs during transitional periods, such as awakening from sleep or after a period of relaxation.

Some researchers speculate that yawning acts as an internal signal, preparing our bodies for these transitions. It could serve as a mechanism indicating a shift between wakefulness and rest, signalling the body to initiate sleep or prompting individuals to take a break from activities such as driving.

The contagious nature of yawning, where witnessing another person yawn triggers a yawning response in oneself, has fascinated scientists.

Studies have revealed a potential link between contagious yawning and empathy. Individuals with higher levels of empathy may be more susceptible to contagious yawning.

Research published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral suggests that contagious yawning could have a social function related to bonding and communication.

This phenomenon could be attributed to mirror neurons in the brain, which are believed to be involved in empathy and imitation.

Mirror neurons may cause us to unconsciously mimic the actions of others, resulting in yawning contagion. (Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.)

A scientific consensus on the precise causes of yawning is yet to be established, despite the many possibilities that have been put out. It’s possible that yawning has a variety of purposes and is impacted by several circumstances.

Contagious yawning and its incidence may be influenced by neurological factors, signalling pathways, social contagion, and physiological mechanisms.

Shmerling argues that yawning plays a role in maintaining proper brain temperature: Our brain functions best within a narrow range of temperatures. Some experts believe yawning can help cool the brain through complex effects on nearby circulation and the sinuses.

Did you know?

The likelihood of yawning increases sixfold, according to one study, after seeing someone else yawn.

As for yawn contagion, James Giordano, a neuroethicist and neuroscientist at Georgetown University, said it may be related to a phenomenon called social mirroring, where organisms imitate the actions of others.

Other behaviours fall into this category, such as scratching, leg crossing and laughing, according to PBS News.

Additionally, another theory argues that social bonds, too, may be reinforced by yawning and other forms of imitative behaviour.

According to one study, if someone flashes you a nice friendly smile without even thinking about it, you’re likely to smile back. It is a form of social communication, and it appears that people who are more empathetic are more likely to have this social mirroring.

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