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About Yawn Contagion

About Yawn Contagion

Why is yawning so contagious?

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to tell you that yawning is extremely contagious, it’s simply something we’ve accepted for centuries. But not everyone is satisfied with such vague explanations as to why this is so.

Steve Platek, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University and one of only a few yawning researchers, likes to describe the processes as “a primitive unconscious mechanism” and he’s on a mission to decipher what’s behind this reaction usually associated with tiredness.

Surprisingly, Platek thinks it has to do with empathy. He says that the more empathetic a person is the more likely they are to identify with the yawner and yawn in response.

yawn contagion

Why is Yawing Contagious?

Image Credit: RJP, 2003.

In a recent study, Platek analyzed people with high empathy, low empathy and those in between. His results showed that people with higher empathy were more susceptible to yawning in response than those with lower empathy. To further confirm his suspicions, he put volunteers in M.R.I machines and made them yawn whilst scanning the specific areas involved. The scans showed that the participants’ brains lighted up in the exact regions associated with empathy.

So far researchers have deduced several types of yawn:

  • The contagious yawn, the tired yawn and the just woke up yawn.
  • There’s also a threatening yawn, the my-teeth-are-bigger-than-yours yawn often performed by primates. According to Platek, people also do this but we don’t have scary teeth anymore.
  • One scientist also claims that there’s a sexual yawn which is use to seduce.

Nearly all species including insects, fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals yawn. Platek says

“Yawning is such a primitive neurological function, it’s a window into what happened during the evolution of the brain.”

Platek notes that more study needs to be conducted to fully understand yawning, but he’s glad that it’s not a boring subject to research:

“Scientists like me usually go to conferences and give talks about technical mumbo jumbo…

“The audience always yawns, and we’re up there thinking, Oh, man, they’re so bored! But when I give a talk about yawning and they yawn, I think: Sweet! They’re paying attention!”[NY Times]

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  1. Rebecca Skloot: Yawn Contagion. NY Times, 12/11/2012.

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