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Is Yawning really Contagious?

By Dillon Wallace

Let’s paint a scenario.

You’re sitting on the bus, messing around on your phone when you look up and across the way you spot someone leaning back in their seat, busting out a long, drawn-out yawn.

What’s your first reaction? Probably yawning right back, unintentionally. You’re not tired or bored. It’s like a reflex you can’t control.

But why? How come yawning seems so contagious? So contagious that even mentioning the word yawn can make you feel like you’ve got to let one out.

I haven’t even finished this blog and I’ve already yawned half a dozen times just thinking about it … why is that?

The mystery behind the yawn

For several years, people yawning as a response to others yawning was thought to be an empathetic trait. The idea that when we see someone yawn it instinctively triggers neurotransmitters in the brain’s hypothalamus causing empathy, and hence, we yawn in response. Yawning in solidarity.

But that might not be the whole story. There’s still a lot to learn about they mystery behind yawning. As it turns out, new studies have shown that clap back contagious yawning might actually be due to perceptual sensitivity. Wait, that sounds like a fancier made-up term for empathy. So, what exactly is “perceptual sensitivity.” To answer that, studies have been conducted to compare yawning reactions of people with clinical disorders versus the general public.

In an average healthy population, contagious yawning was consistently found when subjects would look through several pictures of others yawning. However,  researchers found that individuals diagnosed with autism or schizophrenia did not yawn contagiously like their study counterparts. This reaction, or lack thereof, has led many researchers to believe they may lack the social ability that contributes to contagious yawning. Since many autistic people suffer from impaired perception and judging facial emotions, it’s believed they may not be able to register a yawn from another facial expression. Whereas those who contagiously did yawn back were found to have perceptual sensitivity.

More to yawning: types of yawning

Contrary to popular belief, yawning isn’t just a sign of sleepiness. Sure, we yawn when we’re tired or bored, but that’s only half of the open-mouth, closed-eye story. Yawning is partly an involuntary reflex – a testament to why we yawn when we see someone else do it. But one of the most bizarre cases of the yawns takes place during physical activity.

It’s called aerobic yawning and there are two theories for why it occurs. One thought, is that we know yawning distributes surfactant, which is a biochemical that coats tiny air sacs called alveoli (not to be confused with ravioli) in the lungs. Yawning is believed to help these sacs open and receive more oxygen, which makes sense as to why you’d be yawning during physical exertion – trying to gain more breath. The other theory suggests that yawning helps cool the brain, regulating the temperature for optimal body functionality. Important to have when you’re overheating and dripping pools of sweat. Maybe it’s both reasons, maybe it’s neither? But now you know that yawning when you work out is perfectly normal, healthy in fact.

Contagious yawning and age

It’s amazing how many studies have taken place to get the 411 on yawning. Out of all the independent factors to influence contagious yawning, the most prevalent was age … and even still, only by a small margin. 

Did you know you can yawn in the womb? And when you’re a child, yawning reaches its highest levels with contagious yawning setting in around the 4 year mark. But studies have shown that as a person ages, they’re less likely to yawn or suffer from contagious yawning. Why exactly? Seems the jury is still out on that yawn fest.

The truth is, we have a lot of theories around yawning but what we truly know is still much of a mystery. It might turn out that genetics have more to play in yawning than we thought? Or maybe there’s more than meets the eye with yawning and the greater understanding of human disorders like autism and schizophrenia? Only time and research will tell.

In the meantime, when you see a guy on the bus yawning, go ahead and return the favor by passing it on to the next person.

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