Regardless of how much sleep I clock in, I do my fair share of yawning without any real rhyme or reason, especially when I’m around others. If I see someone yawn — there’s no doubt about it — I’ll be yawning too! Why is this yawning phenomenon so contagious, and why does it spread from person to person?
You may think yawning allows us to get more oxygen flow to the brain, but this is a commonly cited misnomer. Yawning and breathing aren’t regulated by one system and are in fact, controlled by two different regions of the body: the brain’s hypothalamus deals with yawning, but the autonomic nervous system regulates breathing. While we seem to understand the stimuli around breathing, the stimuli triggering yawning are varied and perplexing.
Yawning isn’t initiated just by one thing, but a certain degree of evidence links yawning to brain temperature. An increase in body or brain temperature can trigger yawning. So the theory goes that when people are around others in the same biological environment, they may experience yawning as well.
There is also a reflective element to yawning, in a phenomenon called social mirroring. If we’re around others, we tend to copy speech patterns, tones, body language, and of course yawning. Some people mimic more than others, but if we see people near us yawn, we’re more likely to pick up the social cue and yawn, but there’s still more research needed to pinpoint more consistent supportive data.
One of the triggers of communal yawning is clear: yawning and tension are intertwined. In high-stress situations or when cortisol is elevated, (especially in the presence of others or unfamiliar people), we may let out a yawn, or two.
It’s not just humans that are susceptible to contagious yawning, many other animals do social mimicry and (of course) social yawning. Our feline and canine friends at home aren’t the only social yawners, you can spot the behavior in other animals like sheep, elephants, and monkeys.
So contagious yawning depends on a whole lot of different things! We can catch the contagious yawn when we feel stress, temperature variations, and pressure social situations (and less to do with actual empathy). Our highly receptive brains pick up on yawning as a safe behavior — a switch starts valve —making us more alert. Essentially yawning is a situational and biological coping mechanism to reduce stress and attune ourselves to our surroundings.SKM: below-content placeholder