Why is yawning contagious?

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Have you ever yawned because you saw someone else yawning? For some people, even the words ‘sleep’ or ‘yawn’ can make them yawn (oh I just yawned!). It seems that yawning is ‘contagious’ or ‘catch able’. This behavior also exists in other primates especially in apes.  Although for many years, this ‘contagious’ nature of yawn has remained mystery but there is actual scientific evidence behind contagious yawning.

It is stated that almost 60% of healthy humans experience ‘contagious yawning’ phenomenon.  The ability to yawn when seeing other people yawning can be explained by the concept of ’empathy’ or ‘perspective taking’. People who are more empathetic will often start to yawn when others yawn as well (a clever personality test in interviews!). You are more likely to yawn if the people whom you consider close and care for, start to yawn.  In human brain,  the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (regulates social, emotions and decision making) was activated in individuals with contagious yawning. So please be aware that next time in presentations, do not yawn in front of the speaker as the speaker may be an empathetic person.

On the other hand, since empathy can be distorted in people with “Autism spectrum disorder” (widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, as well as severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behavior) they often do not yawn when people around them yawn. Having said this, this should not be used as an indicator of Autism spectrum disorder.

So please be aware that next time in presentations, do not yawn in front of the speaker as the speaker may be an empathetic person. And that may set a cycle of contagious yawning in the hall. Fortunately since this phenomenon is less likely to occur with strangers, so hopefully the entire hall would not be affected.

Written by Muhammad Wasif Haq (2010)
Karachi, Pakistan
The page is a part of Cool Bluez

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