Why is Yawning Contagious?
It’s Bank Holiday Monday and if you’re anything like us, you’ve spent at least some part of this extended weekend catching up on sleep. If, however, you’re up and about making the most of your extra day off, you might find yourself stifling the occasional yawn. You might not even feel tired, however, the occasional yawn still creeps up on you. Perhaps you saw someone else yawning which triggered you to unwillingly participate in this latest bout of yawning. It might seem common, but why is yawning contagious?
Yawning is the centre of many studies as there are so many theories as to why we yawn. It’s an ancient and automatic trigger which isn’t just unique to people. The motion of yawning is common to many animals, including fish! Common causes include boredom, sleepiness and temperature.
Scientists have noted ‘copycat’ yawning in chimpanzees, baboons, wolves, and occasionally dogs. However, we’re not actually copying the yawn on a conscious level. The ‘copycat’ yawn occurs because you can’t help it. If you become self-conscious about a yawn, it stops.
Research has shown that simply seeing a picture or video of yawning faces can provoke contagious yawning. The truth is, contagious yawning is still a scientific mystery. It’s an evolutionary trait and one which we can’t pin one specific reason on. Sometimes, traits are just evolutionary “stragglers” whose original purpose has faded out, and because they don’t hurt anything, there’s no pressure to get rid of them.
One modern adaptation of yawning is not so contagious—fake yawning. You might do this as a less-than-subtle means of signalling that a conversation has dragged on too long. Why not engage in a scientific experiment next time you’re in a meeting with your boss? Lean back in your chair and yawn, then note down whether he yawns right back at you. Maybe there’s a scientific discovery in there, but probably no pay raise.