Not that it would ever happen in Andrew’s Science 200 class, but did you ever notice that yawns sometimes go around the classroom like the wave goes around Beaver Stadium. It made me wonder about why we yawn at all, and more specifically why we yawn when we see other people yawn. I decided to look for some answers to those questions , but ultimately I just really ended up with more questions. It seems that scientists and professors can’t even agree as to why people ( and animals) yawn in the first place. Some researchers believe that by sucking in that oxygen rich air during a yawn, that we supply oxygen to our bloodstream, helping to wake us up. Others, like Steven Platek, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, believe that theory to be a myth that is not supported by scientific proof. Andrew Gallup, a professor at SUNY Oneonta, believes that yawns serve as a cooling system for the brain. A study involving mice showed that their yawns were often preceded by an increase in brain temperature. A decrease in the brain temperature followed the yawn. Thus, researchers like Platek believe this cooling down of the brain is the reason that we feel refreshed after a good yawn.
So, assuming you buy into the brain cooling theory behind yawns, then why do we tend to find ourselves yawning when we see others yawn? Not surprisingly, there is no real consensus among scientists and professors on this question either. Before looking into the possibilities of why it happens, you can take a little test to see if it happens to you. Click here to watch the “yawn-o–meter” video to see how susceptible you are to contagious yawning.
How did you do? The majority of people studied yawned at least once during the video – and some yawned as many as 15 times in three minutes! Platek found that yawning is contagious in about 60 to 70 percent of the population. Most researchers believe that this is due to mimicry and the social quality of empathy. He has found that people who score high on tests measuring empathetic understanding tend to be more likely to be susceptible to contagious yawning. A behavioral study from University of Pisa, Italy, further found that the rate of contagion was also determined by the relationship to the person observed yawning. It was strongest with kin, then friends, then acquaintances, and least with strangers. Even dogs in a University of London study have been found to be susceptible to contagious yawning. The dogs not only followed the yawn with a yawn, but also acted relaxed and sleepy after seeing a human yawn. But Matthew Campbell, a researcher from Emory University, stresses that is has less to do with empathy and more to do with how our bodies and brains function. A recent Duke study, “Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors,” determined that contagious yawning may not be as closely associated with empathy as previously believed. They did find that contagious yawning seemed to decrease with a person’s age. But, the bottom line is, they really could not come to an ultimate conclusion about what causes this phenomenon. You may be thinking ,”Who cares?” But actually, some of the research into this area of science may lead to other valuable studies. For example, researchers from the University of Connecticut found that children on the autism spectrum were less likely to yawn contagiously than their normally developing peers. They also found that the severity of the autism directly corresponded to the amount of contagious yawning. This has led researchers at Duke University to fund studies to examine the possible genetic influences involved with contagious yawning as a means to better understand diseases like autism or schizophrenia.
So, next time you look around the room and contagiously yawn, maybe you’re really not tired or bored, but just a nice, empathetic person! Who knows!