Fact Or Fiction: Yawning Is Contagious

Stop yawning, you're making me yawn! Whether on the phone, in person, or over Zoom, we all know what it's like when the yawn train gets going. According to Huffpost, yawning might be the most contagious human behavior, so contagious in fact, that neuroscientist Robert R. Provine believes you may be yawning as you read about yawning. Provine says yawning is not only contagious by seeing it, but also by reading about it and hearing it. Fun fact; the act of yawning is even contagious across species which, according to NPR, is because yawning plays a role in the evolution of social bonding and empathy.

But why is yawning contagious? Research suggests that the tendency to repeat a yawn is innately caused by primitive reflexes from the part of the brain responsible for motor function (via Science Daily). James Giordano, a neuroscientist, believes the behavior could be related to mirror neurons in the brain stating, "what these neurons are involved in is matching what we sense and feel to the way we move," he told PBS. Giordano says this social mirroring relates to other behaviors such as leg crossing and laughing. 

Why do we yawn?

Research does not agree on why we yawn, leaving us with no conclusive answer. Some theories indicate we yawn to cool the brain, get more oxygen, or even stretch internal organs. A small study from 2014 backs the idea that yawning is how we regulate brain temperature, with results showing that we yawn more in the warmer months (per Healthline). We might yawn to bring in more oxygen, according to Kids Health, because when we are fatigued or bored, we don't breathe as deeply.

There may not be concurring concrete evidence as to why we yawn but there is strong data that shows it is linked to empathy (via The Guardian). One study showed children start catching yawns after the age of four, which is also the age they begin to learn empathy, while another study implies those who lack empathy, such as psychopaths, do not catch yawns (Time). Furthermore, neurologist Thomas Scammell told PBS that yawning can strengthen bonds as a "form of social communication, and it appears that people who are more empathetic are more likely to have this social mirroring." Whatever the reason for yawning may be, oxygen, empathy, or no reason at all, there is no disputing its extreme contagiousness.