Does hearing, watching, seeing or sitting close to somebody yawning make you yawn as well? If yes, you are not alone, and it is not abnormal. Yawning can be spontaneous, usually out of stress, feeling sleepy or boredom and it can be caught from someone else. It can even be caught while reading a piece like this, so it won’t be abnormal if you yawn at least once before you finish reading this.
It has been found that many people, especially adults, yawn after someone close yawns, due to a universal phenomenon called contagious yawning. Only children below four years are immune from contagious yawning but the spontaneous one starts from when they were in the womb.
So, everybody does it, whether willingly or triggered when others do it. In fact, some scientists believe that an involuntary copying of the facial expression of others could cause contagious yawning, and it is actually one of the reactions in the body that can be ‘caught’ when people in close proximity do it.
In any case, yawning, which takes an average of six seconds to complete, is a brief reflex action that consists of opening the mouth (whether lightly or loudly), inhalation of air, cessation of breathing for a short period, followed by exhalation of breath, and then a refreshing feeling.
Some even add sound to the process of doing it, making it somewhat melodious and funny. It is not impossible that this piece could ignite yawning among readers, and if it comes, kindly allow it because it has been said that the deep breathing associated with yawning helps to keep the lungs healthy and to reset and cool the brain.
“That open-mouthed yawn causes sinus walls to expand and contract like a bellows, pumping air onto the brain, which lowers its temperature,” a study said.
Nevertheless, why do people yawn? Many reasons have been adduced for it but there is still some debate and researchers are yet to reach a consensus over the real reasons for yawning. While some have attributed it to one of the mysteries of nature, it has been associated with hunger, feeling bored, stress or state of being tired, doing tedious activities, before and after sleeping and contacting it from someone who just did it.
Moreover, humans are not the only living things that yawn, some animals do, and it is also contagious in some, unlike others. Meanwhile, studies have suggested that people with high levels of empathy tend to contagiously yawn more than other people.
Beyond the contagious quality, scientists have revealed that yawning could be used to determine the closeness or relationship between people because they found that a yawn is more likely to spread among friends than relatives.
A study by some scientists from universities in Pisa, Parma and Rome in Italy suggests that ‘contagious’ yawns are a sign of deep empathy and are caused by an irrepressible need to share and understand the emotions and feelings of others.
In other words, a friend’s yawn is more catching than a stranger’s yawning as it could be a sign of empathy. “People often laugh when others laugh, smile when others smile and frown when others frown, so the same is true for yawning,” they said.
The study, published in Daily Mail, added that the bridge in emotions created by the shared experience of yawning enhances social bonding.
“I think what the study does is it supports the idea that empathy is the mechanism that underlies contagious yawns. The idea is that it is the same mechanism by which people catch smiles or frowns or fearful expressions,” said Matthew Campbell of Emory University, who commented on the study.
In the study, the researchers monitored 33 adults over 380 hours and recorded 1,375 yawns. They found that a yawn was far more likely to spread, and did so more quickly, among friends and relatives, adding that a yawn wave was likely to be triggered among humans, especially family members due to shared emotions.
The researchers concluded that people’s ability to feel empathy is stronger between friends and relatives than among strangers and the closer people are genetically or emotionally, the more likely they are to ‘catch’ the yawning.
They said, “Humans’ responses to yawning were more frequent and faster when the trigger and responder shared a strong emotional bond. People show a different degree of sensitivity to yawning, but it is strongest when the people concerned are strongly emotionally attached, that is, among the closest of pals.”
In another study, Ivan Norscia and Elisabetta Palagi of the University of Pisa in Italy observed 109 adults from Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, and they were about evenly split by gender. Overall, they were able to analyse 480 bouts of yawns from the 109 people. It is worthy of note that contagious yawning has nothing to do with gender, culture or race, but how well people know each other.
When they considered factors that could have affected the time between a person’s yawn and an observer’s imitation, they found that social bond was key, and in order not to confuse a spontaneous yawn for one that was triggered by another person’s yawn, the researchers limited their recording time to three minutes.
They found that yawns move more quickly from senders to catchers when relationships are close, noting that the delay between yawn and response was shorter for acquaintances than for strangers, suggesting that the closer, more familiar, more attached you are to the potential ‘catchee,’ the more likely he or she will promptly return the yawn.
Furthermore, the study found that those susceptible to contagious yawning are better at inferring what others are thinking from their faces.
“In about two-thirds of the cases, relatives of the yawner responded with their own yawn within a minute, as did about half the friends of the yawner. Most strangers and acquaintances took two or three minutes to respond.
“In other words, the contagion is greater between familiar individuals, and a reciprocal yawn occurred among family members, then friends, then acquaintances and the phenomenon was least common among strangers, so it also follows an empathic gradient, increasing from strangers to kin-related individuals.” Norscia and Palagi told LiveScience.
Reacting to the study, a physiologist, Dr. Clement Nku, said there is no physiological explanation for yawning, adding that researchers have also not been able to establish a reason for it, but that observation had shown that it is contagious.
“Most of those researches have said that the physiological basis cannot really be ascertained, although some people say it can be due to tiredness, but nobody has been able to say why it is like that. However, from observation, we see that it is contagious but we cannot really link it physiologically,” he said.
But on his part, a professor of psychology, Prof. Oni Fagboungbe, said there is a part of the brain responsible for sleeping and waking in the body, and that yawning is triggered when that part of the brain is about to shut down.
“There is a centre in the brain called reticular activating system, which controls the wakening and sleeping in humans. When that centre is about to shut down, the person becomes weak and the manifestation of that weakness is yawning,” he said.
He explained further that social influence is responsible for the contagious trait of yawning. He said, “Research has shown that when a group of people are gathered together and one of them yawns, the tendency is for somebody or others to yawn. Socially, it is social influence, but psychologically, we see it as a flow of learning.
“A psychologist, Albert Bandura, said we watch others do things and because we are able to watch them, especially when there is a reinforcement attached to it, then we like to do what such people have done so that we can also receive the reinforcement.”