Why is yawning contagious?
As a college student at a university as huge as Penn State, both mental and physical fatigue are all too familiar. Waking up for my 8:00 AM is probably the hardest thing I do in any given day. Remaining attentive in a gigantic lecture hall filled with 300 people while listening to one professor talk about the definition of a derivative, and other dull topics all but puts me to sleep. It seems, however, that it is not just boring or tiring to me, as many students yawn around me in each of my classes. From these observations, I have noticed that whenever someone yawns, it initiates a chain reaction, and either myself or someone else near me will yawn as well. So, is this because yawning is contagious, or because we are all just tired, and is there a correlation?
Contagious yawning is something that happens when we react to another person’s senses, as we respond to their yawn with our own yawn. It comes as a response to hearing or sighting another yawn. So is it contagious? In a recent study conducted by Duke Health, 328 participants (similar size to our class!) were followed and tested to see the effect that visualizing and hearing yawns had on their own yawn response. They conducted background surveys and question based tests to determine if yawning was in fact, contagious from similar levels of energy, tiredness, and actually empathy. Empathy is the ability to relate to another, and it was thought that maybe the relation made the yawns contagious. Subjects were to watch a video of yawning, and during this period, 222 subjects yawned. With respect to the background surveys and questions, the most significant information, or correlation they could gather rather, was that each of the 222 subjects who yawned, reigned from a similar age group. It was thus concluded that as age increased yawning decreased.
This could explain the current college lecture situation, as yawning spreads like a virus within the lecture hall. We are all relatively young, as well as within the same age group, and therefore can relate through interests and similar aspects of learning, as we all listen to the same lecture.
There is also the theory that we humans have traits of herding behavior. We all flock together and follow each other’s actions, such as yawning. As we are within the animal kingdom, yawning is a communication action initiated by instinct, to communicate the group’s set time or need to sleep, which could explain why we all yawn during my 8:00AM lecture.
But we must ask, why do we yawn in the first place?
To find the origin of the contagion, we must dig deep in research to determine the proximate cause of a human’s yawning mechanism, and in turn examine how it becomes “contagious.” We yawn, according to WebMD, to apparently cool the brain and increase blood flow. To support this data, there was also a study conducted by the University of Vienna, to see if yawning was a cooling mechanism. They followed 120 participants during the winter and summer, and concluded that yawning was significantly higher during the summer, as subjects apparently needed yawning to cool their brain’s temperature during the hotter months. But how can that explain how yawning may be contagious?
In the present time, there are still ongoing studies to figure out why exactly yawning occurs, and for what reasons it seems to be contagious. Although cooling the brain and increasing blood flow may be the answer to the reason behind why we yawn, it cannot explain how this necessary action can be considered contagious. The current studies could suffer from the file-drawer problem, as there is a lack of significant information within the science world to explain and conclude a significant reason for why we yawn for certain and why it spreads.
Even though we cannot conclude anything just yet, as chance is always prevalent, I believe that yawning is contagious. Though personal anecdotes cannot be taken as significant information or conclusions, the observation of many yawns throughout the lecture hall leads me to believe that yawning is contagious, and for one, makes us all want to go back to bed.