DIET AND FITNESS:

Why Is Yawning Contagious?
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May 25, 2012, last updated May 26, 2014

By Susan Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist





If you have ever sat near someone who starts yawning, and
then started yawning yourself, you may have wondered
“why is yawning contagious?”   Is yawning a response to
being tired? Are we less likely to yawn if we see a stranger
yawn versus when we see someone we know yawn?  What
is yawning anyway?

What Is Yawning?

Yawning is one of our earliest physical traits. Yawning even
has been observed among other species, particularly chimps
and dogs. But scientists are divided as to the exact causes of
yawning. Several theories have been advanced: that
yawning is our bodies way of increasing oxygen, especially
when we are tired, that yawning is how we “cool” our
brains when the temperature gets too high, that yawning
relieves boredom and many others.

Whatever the purposes of yawning, the physiological
components of yawning are well documented. When we
yawn, we close our eyes, we often stretch, tests show that
our heart rate increases in the seconds leading up to a yawn
and decreases after yawn, our brains cool within seconds of
a yawn, our bodies also may experience arousal.

Yawns last for 5 seconds on average, according to a 2013
study led by of Dr. Sharat Gupta of Gian Sagar Medical
College in India.


Here are 4 surprising aspects of contagious yawning
behavior:



























1.
Yawning Is Triggered by Empathy.

Yawning is believed to be a measure of your ability to feel
empathy.   People with empathy “feel” what others feel.
They place themselves in other’s feet. They walk a mile in
their brother’s shoes.  A  2004 study from the University of
Stirling in the Uk has found that 33% of chimpanzees who
are shown a video of other chimps yawning start to yawn
themselves.  But because the instinct for empathy takes
socialization to develop, the researchers found that infant
chimpanzees who watched the same video did not yawn at
all.

In fact, very young children below age 4 likewise do not
experience contagious yawning. Young children do not yawn
in response to seeing others yawn, perhaps because the
neural pathways necessary to put yourself into someone
else's position ---and this feel empathy --do  not develop
until after age 4 on average, according to a study conducted
in 2004 by Dr. R. Saxe and Dr. S. Carey of MIT's Department
of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.


2.
Schizophrenics Don’t Yawn.   

Studies have found an interesting fact.  Schizophrenics and
those with schizoid personality yawn very little.  Why?
Schizophrenia is evidenced by lack of something called
“resonance”.

Resonance is a mirroring of the behaviors of others around
you. We do it involuntarily to show that we like someone or
we share their experiences.

Examples of resonance are contagious yawning or
contagious laughing. You may have experienced walking into
a room with people laughing and starting to laugh yourself
even before you know what  everyone else is laughing
about.  That’s  resonance. Healthy humans seem to naturally
want to “join in” and share a common experience.

Schizophrenia, in ways not entirely understood by scientists,
interferes with the healthy brain’s response to shared
experiences. They simply cannot “feel” the connection with
other people.  (Read more about
foods that fight
schizophrenia.)


3.  
Nice People Yawn More.  

Nice people yawn more, according to a 2003 study led by Dr.
Steven Platek, Ph.D., of Drexel University in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania.  In the study, 65 people were shown videos of
other people laughing, yawning and staring blankly. "Those
who showed contagious yawning were more likely to
perform better on our empathy test than those who did
not," says Platek.   What they found was that 40% of those
who watched the videos s yawned in reaction.  The other
60% who did not yawn were tested and found to have  
some schizotypal traits (though none were found to have
full-blown schizophrenia).  

Now, mind you, we’re not suggesting that schizophrenics
aren’t nice people. We’re only saying that what we humans
collectively think of as “nice” means people who share our
emotions and feel what we feel, and schizophrenics and
others who don’t yawn very much tend to be people  unable
to share our feelings. (Read about
foods that fight
schizophrenia.)

4.
Do Sociopaths Catch Contagious Yawning?

Given that studies have found that contagious yawning
indicates social empathy, does it follow that sociopaths,
those who lack empathy and conscience, are immune to
contagious yawning? If you yawn in front of a sociopath,
would they catch your yawning?  

While it may be tempting to conclude that sociopaths yawn
less than others and that they can’t “catch” contagious
yawning, no clear research study has established this
connection. However, a 2010 study led by from Dr. Catriona
Morrison of the University of Leeds in UK has found that “
contagious yawning indicates empathy. It indicates an
appreciation of other people's behavioural and physiological
state," she added (emphasis added).  It follows that
sociopaths would be less likely to experience contagious
yawning. But again, more research is needed.




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