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Yawning is Most Contagious with Family Members


Why does yawning seem to be contagious? It’s one of life’s little mysteries, and now a group of researchers have explored that question and found that what drives yawning is emotional closeness. Apparently, yawning is most contagious with family members.

Why do we yawn?

The act of yawning is a reflex in which your eardrums stretch while you inhale, followed by an exhale. If you are someone who yawns and stretches (not just your eardrums) at the same, that action is known as pandiculating.

People yawn typically when they are stressed, tired, bored, or overworked. Animals, including cats, dogs, horses, chimpanzees, penguins, and even fish, also yawn, although their reasons vary, from it being part of mating ritual (penguins) to the need for oxygen (fish).

In a new study from the University of Pisa in Italy, researchers explored behavioral evidence for why people experience what is commonly referred to as infectious or contagious yawning—that is, yawning after seeing someone else yawn. The study group included 109 adults ages 17 and older from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America and took place over one year.

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The participants were observed in their natural settings for different periods of time, ranging from 6 minutes to 2 hours, and the investigators recorded a variety of information, including but not limited to characteristics of the yawn, number of yawns within 3 minutes, physical position of the person observing the yawn, amount of time it took for a person to respond to the yawn (with a yawn), and sex. Also noted was the degree of social bonding between the trigger person (the person yawning) and the person who responded: stranger, acquaintance, friend, or family.

Overall, the researchers found that people who were related to the yawner responded faster and more frequently than did friends, and the delay was even longer for acquaintances, and finally strangers. The authors noted “the importance of social bond in shaping yawn contagion demonstrates that empathy plays a leading role in the modulation” of contagious yawning.

Empathy is the ability to recognize and share feelings or emotions that are experienced by another person or even an animal. The authors explained that seeing another person yawning can activate brain regions associated with motor imitation, empathy, and social behavior, and that certain neural areas may be over-stimulated when people see the yawn of someone they care about. That over-stimulation may lead to a yawning response.

The next time you or someone else in your environment yawns, you might think about: Does the yawning become contagious? Who is responding to the initial yawn? What is the relationship between the people who are yawning?

Norscia I, Palagi E. PLoS ONE 2011; 6(12): e28472