What is yawning? And why do we do so much of it? Neuroscientist and yawn expert Robert Provine says it’s “ancient and autonomic.” It stems from early evolution and is common to many creatures—even fish do it. It’s autonomic in the sense that it roots in the brainstem, way down in the basement level of the brain, where certain responses are so built-in they don’t even qualify as reflexes.
Yawning has many triggers, including boredom, sleepiness, and temperature. A 2014 study suggested that there’s a “thermal window” (at around 68°F) for human yawning; as ambient temperature approaches body temperature or goes down near freezing, we yawn less. According to the paper, we may yawn to regulate the temperature of our brains. This isn’t the same as saying we yawn to take in extra oxygen, as evidence to date says we don’t. It means that yawning might act to draw brain-soothing ambient air in through the nose and mouth.
Over the years, scientists have observed “contagious yawning” in chimpanzees, humans, baboons, bonobos, wolves, and, to a certain extent, dogs. Yawning feels good, so why not join in when someone else yawns? Well, you’re not really “joining in,” because you aren’t copying the yawn on any conscious level. It happens because you just can’t help it. If you become self-conscious about a yawn, it stops.
While many past studies have documented the phenomenon, a more recent study, published in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, contends that yawns may not be contagious after all—or at least that we have not yet proven it. Experimental psychologist Rohan Kapitány of the University of Oxford conducted a review of the scientific literature on contagious yawns and found very little conclusive evidence to back up our long-held assumption that yawns are contagious.
“The belief that yawns are contagious seems self-evident,” Kapitány told PsyPost, “but there are some very basic reasons for why we might be mistaken in this. If we fail to dissect that which we think we know, we might end up with conclusions that do not reflect reality. In this instance, the literature hasn’t questioned the basic features of contagious yawning, and ended up with a wide range of unstandardized methodologies and conclusions.”
Still, because Kapitány’s study was small and extremely limited, he and his fellow authors urge other scientists to challenge their findings with experiments of their own.
“I may be wrong!” Kapitány said. “Maybe yawns are contagious!” Kapitány says he’d like to see “more robust” attempts to falsify the claim that yawns are contagious rather than “simply demonstrating it over and over [in] slightly different contexts with richer and richer explanations.”
Some people with autism or schizophrenia don’t exhibit a yawn-contagion response. The same is true of children under the age of four years. This has led to a variety of theories about yawning’s relationship to empathy and the brain’s mirror-neuron system (MNS). The idea here is that MNS deficits might lead to missing hidden empathetic cues that trigger contagious yawning. The MNS seems to be involved in the process to some extent. fMRI scans on a range of people have shown that other parts of the brain also “light up” in response to images of yawning, perhaps more so than the areas normally associated with empathy.
Parts of the amygdala—a brain area associated with fear and heightened attention—light up in response to images of yawning. We sometimes yawn when we’re nervous, such as before a sporting performance.
So, perhaps we yawn at those times to prepare our brains for “fight or flight.” Maybe contagious yawning is a smart evolutionary shortcut for readying the brains of an entire group of hominins for swift action in response to a threat. (If that’s the case, then some older members would have been left behind, because older people are a little less susceptible to yawn contagion.) We are social mammals; this kind of evolutionary refinement of an existing trait (general purpose yawning becoming contagious yawning) might have helped groups to survive.
Or maybe it’s a lot less deep than that. Laughing also feels good, and it too can be contagious. Like laughter, contagious yawning might help groups to bond—by signaling unselfconscious, relaxed sleepiness. Perhaps it has more to do with feeling safe than with feeling threatened.
Contagious yawning is still a bit of a scientific mystery. We love to speculate about it and try to home in on the reason for it. But why should an evolutionary trait have one specific reason behind it? Often, traits survive because they cover a number of bases. Other times, they’re simply evolutionary stragglers whose original purpose has faded out, but because they don’t work against a creature’s survival, there’s no pressure to get rid of them.
One modern adaptation of yawning is not so contagious—fake yawning. You might do this as a less-than-subtle means of signaling that a conversation has dragged on too long. Why not engage in a scientific experiment next time you’re in a meeting with your boss? Lean back in your chair and yawn, then note down whether he or she yawns right back at you. Maybe there’s a scientific discovery in there … but probably no pay raise.
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