What is it about seeing someone else yawn that turns us all into copycats? Arguably, yawning is just as contagious as any run-of-the-mill pathogen—and yet, most of us, if asked why we yawn when someone else does, wouldn’t be able to explain the freaky phenomenon. So, what exactly makes yawning such a “monkey see, monkey do” action (so to speak) for species like humans, chimpanzees, and baboons?
The short answer: We don’t know yet with 100 percent certainty. But while there’s no current scientific consensus about why yawns are contagious, there are some research-backed theories out there from top experts that may hold the truth.
One theory posits that humans “catch” yawns because we’re a particularly compassionate species, and it’s a way of communicating empathy. In fact, there’s an abundance of research establishing a correlation between yawning and empathy.
One study, from the University of Connecticut, concluded that children were essentially immune to contagious yawning until the age of four—around the time when empathy is learned for most kids. In the same study, the authors found that children with autism—in other words, children who may struggle to process emotion and feel empathy—were less likely than their comrades without autism to yawn in response to someone else’s yawn.
And consider the findings from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University. In this study, the researchers found that the more psychopathic traits an individual exhibited—in other words, the more they were lacking in empathy—the less likely they were to yawn contagiously.
Another popular hypothesis is that yawning serves to regulate the brain’s internal temperature, working almost like a radiator would. In fact, this phenomenon was actually observed by researchers at Binghamton University, who studied the behavior of parrots and found that as the temperature in the room increased, the birds’ yawning increased too.
So how does the idea of thermoregulation play into contagious yawning? Well, researchers believe that if we see someone else yawning, we are tipped off that we should start yawning to keep our brains cool, too.
“If I see a yawn, that might automatically cue an instinctual behavior that if so-and-so’s brain is heating up, that means I’m in close enough vicinity, I may need to regulate my neural processes,” psychology professor Steven Platek explained to Smithsonian.
Neuroscientist James Giordano is one of the many researchers who agrees with the theory that copycat yawning is meant to aid in survival—at least for more primitive species.
So there you have it: Though the jury is still out on why yawns are contagious, the mimicked action is likely a result of either survival or empathy, so pat yourself on the back for your highly-evolved, compassionate nature the next time a contagious yawn strikes. And to learn more about some of life’s crazy phenomena, read on to find out Why You Snort When You Laugh.
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