Have you ever heard this?
If you want to identify a psychopath, yawn around them. If they don’t yawn, they must be a true psychopath!
Is it true? Why do people yawn when other people yawn?
Is this all just a myth, or is there some truth to it?
When I was younger, I always heard that “sympathy yawning” was a sign of empathy.
But for this post, I decided to dig deeply into the science of it, and figure out once and for all why peoples yawns are contagious!
Let’s get down to business.
The Science: Why Do People Yawn When Other People Yawn?
You probably ended up here because you were curious about this whole ‘sympathy yawning’ thing.
You’ve noticed it, I’ve noticed it—everyone has noticed it.
But what’s really going on?
As it turns out, you’re not the only person who has wondered this.
Scientists at the University of Nottingham have also dug into this. And they published a study on it back in 2017.
Here are the highlights.
The study, which was titled A Neural Basis For Contagious Yawning, was published in the scientific journal Current Biology.
There were a few key things discovered over the course of this study.
Our Ability to Resist Yawning When Someone Else Yawns Is Limited
This is the first clue, but it isn’t even the most interesting one.
It is also true that our urge to yawn actually increases when we are told not to yawn!
Scientists were committed to figuring out an explanation.
The study was led by a professor named Stephen Jackson, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology.
He said that the study was important for a number of reasons.
Here is a quote he gave about the study.
“We suggest that these findings may be particularly important in understanding further the association between motor excitability and the occurrence of echophenomena in a wide range of clinical conditions that have been linked to increased cortical excitability and/or decreased physiological inhibition such as epilepsy, dementia, autism, and Tourette syndrome.”
According to scientists, contagious yawning is an example of a phenomenon called Echophenomena.
Now, many scientists down through the ages have formed theories about this. They have attributed it to empathy, intelligence, and even the time of day.
But what causes it?
Well, let’s dig a bit deeper.
What Is Echophenomena?
According to Wikipedia, Echophenomenon is the word used to describe ‘automatic imitative actions without explicit awareness.’
They could also be described as ‘pathological repetitions of external stimuli or activities, actions, sounds, or phrases, indicative of an underlying disorder.’
One interesting fact about contagious yawning is that about half of adults yawn when they see someone else yawn.
It is also true that there is an age component to the phenomenon.
For example. According to a study called Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility Is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors, which was published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, it was determined that contagious yawning and empathy may not quite correlate as much as used to be believed.
And according to a study that was published back in 2010, it was discovered that most children aren’t susceptible to contagious yawning until about the age of 4.
It was also revealed that children with Autism were less likely to yawn contagiously than children who were not on the spectrum.
Once again, we see small clues that lead toward describing the mechanism. But the cause remains unclear.
So, What Does All of This Mean? Why Do People Yawn When Other People Yawn?
Here’s the thing.
As stated before, in the past, it was believed that contagious yawning was strongly associated with empathy, intelligence, or even time of day.
But these recent studies are revealing something different.
That contagious yawning has a lot more to do with age than anything else.
In fact, this is really the only variable that remains when you test for everything else.
But here’s the kicker. Even though age was a common variable, it only explained about 8% of the variability in contagious yawn responses during the study.
That means that there is actually something else at work in addition to age that is affecting how likely you are to ‘sympathy yawn’ when you see someone else do it.
As you age, you are less likely to sympathy yawn. Once again, we see the age component. But that isn’t the whole story.
There’s more to it.
Going Back to the Nottingham University Study, We May Find Some Additional Clues
We know that contagious yawning is an Echophenomena. We also know that types of Echophenomena can also be seen in a wide range of other clinical conditions—namely, epilepsy, autism, dementia, and Tourette syndrome.
But here’s the problem.
The neural basis for Echophenomena is unknown.
During the Nottingham University study, however, the team used Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation on 36 adult volunteers as they watched video clips of people yawning.
And here’s what happened.
As electrical stimulation was increased, the urge to yawn also increased.
Here is what Georgina Jackson, professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the Institute of Mental Health, said about the results of the study.
“This research has shown that the ‘urge’ is increased by trying to stop yourself. Using electrical stimulation we were able to increase excitability and in doing so increase the propensity for contagious yawning. In Tourettes if we could reduce the excitability we might reduce the tics and that’s what we are working on.”
This Gives Us a Clue About the Mechanism—But What Is the Cause?
Researchers at Duke University are actually working on this exact question—and they believe that there may be a genetic influence that accounts for it.
In fact, in the study we referred to earlier, Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility Is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors, you find that scientists label spontaneous yawning as a phylogenetic trait.
But the weird thing is that spontaneous yawning can be observed as a widespread trait among vertebrates as a whole—whereas contagious yawning has only been demonstrated and observed in humans and chimpanzees.
But check out this paragraph, taken from the end of the discussion section of the study.
”Despite these limitations, our work clearly demonstrates the stability of intra-individual variation in susceptibility to contagious yawning, a significant negative correlation between age and the contagious yawning response, and the inability of any known variables to explain the vast majority of variation in contagious yawn responses. This extensive, unexplained, and highly replicable variation between individuals in their susceptibility suggests the existence of an underlying genetic influence and warrants future studies assessing the inheritance of this unique trait.”
This is actually really interesting. This study, which has been called one of the most comprehensive studies done on contagious yawning to-date, suggests that an underlying genetic influence may be at work in determining who exactly is more susceptible to contagious yawning, and who isn’t.
In Conclusion – Why Do People Yawn When Other People Yawn?
At the end of the day, the true answer to this question is still a bit of a mystery.
Scientists believe that there is a genetic component to the mystery of ‘sympathy yawning,’ but as of yet, more research is most certainly needed.
The following quote, given by Meredeth Williamson, a clinical assistant professor from the Texas A&M College of Medicine, pretty much says it all in the following quote she gave during a news release.
“In short, we don’t know why yawns are contagious. 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.”
But she also went on to say this.
“Researchers have seen that yawning may not be as contagious to people with Autism or schizophrenia.”
And this seems to give probably the biggest clue into what may cause it. It has something to do with the reactions in our brains. It may be a primitive form of communication—or it may be something else.
Only time will give us the answer to the question of “why do people yawn when other people yawn.”
In the meantime, we will have to continue to speculate—and read cool science articles to discuss and ponder the potentialities.