Ever wondered what makes yawning contagious?
Yawing is an involuntary action. We start before we are born and most creatures on the planet do it – even fish and snakes.
We yawn more on hot days so new research has suggested that rather than being a sign of sleep, the purpose of yawning is to cool the brain so it operates more efficiently and keeps you awake.
This could explain why many of us yawn when we see or hear another person doing it, or even just think abut it.
This theory says when we contagiously yawn that we are partaking in an ancient ritual that developed to help groups stay alert and detect danger and that we are not copying another person’s sleepiness.
But there are other theories.
It’s been suggested that contagious yawning could be a result of an unconscious herding behaviour, similar to when flocks of birds take flight.
Another theory is that contagious yawning may have helped early humans communicate their alertness levels and co-ordinate sleeping times. So if one decided it was time to sleep they would communicate this to the others by yawning and they would do it in return to show their agreement.
Chimpanzees also experience contagious yawning, according to researchers at Kyoto University in Japan and are thought to be the only other creatures, apart from humans, who do so.
The recent discovery of the “mirror neuron system” in the brain which helps us to respond sympathetically and empathetically to others may help clarify why yawning is associated with empathy. Mirror neurons help us relate emotionally to other people. They help us to respond sympathetically towards others and allow us to anticipate others intentions. When you watch a good movie with good actors then that’s why you feel the way you do. So similarly, yawning may be a powerful non-verbal activator of the mirror neuron system in others – explaining why it is so contagious.
Far from being bad manners, yawning is a sign of our deep humanity.
So, go on, spread the understanding and compassion and yawn for humankind.