Have you ever wondered that why do you, without warning, begin to yawn when you see another person yawning near you? Almost all of us have experienced this at some point in our lives – at home, at school or college, in a bus or metro, on the road or even during a wedding ceremony. We find someone close to us yawning and then we join in. Not because it feels good or because we want to. But because we can’t help it.
Why, though? Why do we yawn when someone else does?
Countless researchers and scientists over the years have attempted to unravel this mystery. But no one has really been able to decode this subject comprehensively.
Usually, it is assumed that humans yawn when they are tired or are bored. Yawning is automatic as its roots are in the brainstem. There are multiple triggers that can cause yawning – apart from boredom and sleepiness, temperature too can cause yawning.
Why do we yawn when someone else does – Researchers in a fix?
But what about contagious yawning? Is there a genuine reason behind it?
Researchers don’t seem to have an answer yet.
“In short, we don’t know why yawns are contagious,” said Meredith Williamson, PhD, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Researchers used to think that yawning was only signaling a need for sleep, but now they believe that it can communicate a shift in alertness or boredom.”
Contagious yawning can occur in humans as a result of hearing, seeing, or even thinking about yawning. Do you feel like yawning even as you read this? No? Pause and think for a second. And read that line about yawning again. You are likely to feel that urge to yawn and may well end up yawning too.
Contagious yawning isn’t limited to humans too. Chimpanzees, humans, baboons, bonobos, wolves, and, even dogs, are known to be affected by contagious yawning.
But while we have ascertained that contagious yawning is a phenomenon do we have any answers to why do we yawn when someone else does?
In recent years, several studies have shown that yawning may be connected to empathy. Some researchers have attempted to establish that people with autism or schizophrenia are unaffected by contagious yawning as they do not yawn like normal people do. Even children below the age of four years, apparently, do not get affected by contagious yawning.
“We find that for non-clinical population, perceptual ability is more closely related to contagious yawning than empathy is,” says Dr. Chia-huei Tseng, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor at Tohoku University. “Since it’s been documented that people with autism tend to suffer from impaired perception such as an atypical eye gazing on faces and a difficulty in judging facial emotions, it’s possible that their perceptual limitation causes them to be unable to detect someone else’s yawning expression. This is a possible explanation for their lack of contagious yawning.”
Perhaps this is the closest we have come to answering why do we yawn when someone else does, isn’t it?
It has also been said that contagious yawning could be recognized as a social behaviour that includes mental attribution. In simpler words, this logic means to state that people who are more susceptible to contagious yawning are better at recognizing their own faces, or self-face recognition. There is another theory that suggests that contagious yawning allows us to communicate with our social group on a subconscious level and also promotes behavioral synchronization. In fact, contagious yawning might be a form of social signaling, much like laughter which is also contagious.
Conclusion – More research is needed to ascertain why do we yawn when someone else does
While there have been plenty of research on contagious yawning and its probable reasons, nothing concrete has yet been established. Even fake yawning, for example, has been found to be contagious at times. This raises questions on a number of research points and studies that have been determined over the years about this mysterious human activity.
Ultimately, the question of why do we yawn when someone else does still remains a conundrum like many other aspects of human behaviour. A better understanding of this phenomenon is definitely needed to come to a conclusion.
Until then, continue to yawn away with abandon when you find someone yawning close to you. You won’t be able to help it anyway. You are probably yawning as you read this too, aren’t you?