How Contagious Yawning Works


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com.

Josh Clark: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, a staff writer here at howstuffworks.com. With me are two of my favorite editors, Chris Pollete and Candace Gibson. How are you guys today?

Chris Pollete: Doing all right.

Josh Clark: Candace, what about you? That was a yawn from Candace and actually, I strangely feel like yawning right now, which reminds me of an article I wrote once, it's called, "Does Contagious Yawning Mean You're Nice." Are you guys familiar with this?

Chris Pollete: Yeah, it's pretty amazing to think that something we don't know much about, like yawning, could actually be passed on because you see somebody yawn and you have an empathetic feeling toward that person.

Josh Clark: Yeah, it is kind of amazing. Candace?

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and not only is yawning a strange phenomenon, empathy is pretty strange, too, depending on how it's expressed. And, empathy, just to bring you up to speed, is just essentially the way that you're relating to another person. It shows that you're trying to experience the feelings that they're experiencing, be them positive or negative, empathy just shows that you're in tune with what the other person is doing.

Josh Clark: You can identify with them; you can put yourself in their shoes.

Candace Gibson: In a nutshell. Perfect nutshell!

Josh Clark: And that's pretty much the link that people - well, researchers, have concluded that we yawn contagiously or we're susceptible to contagious yawning because we feel empathy but that's pretty much where the solid explanations go and Candace is actually yawning at this point.

Candace Gibson: I'm still yawning. I can't get over it. I'm just that nice, but you know, I did want to tell you guys a little bit about yawning and some of the theories that are floating around out there about it. It doesn't just mean you're, what, sleepy, bored, all the above -

Josh Clark: That's true. It could be a number of things. Some researchers have even gone so far as to suggest that it could be a little bit like your teeth - not your teeth - your dogs teeth when he or she is bearing their teeth to show anger or they're being defensive, they're saying maybe you are doing this subliminal response that you are going, you know -

Chris Pollete: Don't mess with me.

Josh Clark: Yeah, don't mess with me. Exactly! And people have even said that they can yawn at their dog and their dog will yawn back so maybe it's something there to that theory.

Chris Pollete: So, have they found in studies that people yawn when their dogs bear their teeth at them?

Josh Clark: You know, I didn't see anything suggesting that, to be honest with you, but it is interesting to note. I think you were saying earlier that it may actually be linked to a fight or flight response, and you know, when you put it that way, it's not so strange.

Chris Pollete: Sure, and we were talking about the African Savannah, the fight or flight response you mean?

Josh Clark: Right.

Chris Pollete: Well, yeah, there's a theory that contagious yawning - well, since you yawn maybe to make yourself more alert which would be helpful when you feel fear -

Candace Gibson: Yeah, because it carries blood to your brain so it kicks on that alert.

Chris Pollete: Exactly, and if you feel fear, say, because a lion is approaching and you yawn in response, through empathy, a fellow member of your species could pick up that yawn and pass it along and before you know it, there's no one there for the lion to eat because they've all skedaddled.

Candace Gibson: They got out of there, yeah, out of dodge.

Chris Pollete: And another theory has to do with the eyes as queues. Have you guys heard about this?

Josh Clark: The eyes have it. Actually, a researcher that I read about did a study to try and - since yawning is contagious, he wanted to try and find a yawn that would get everybody and the best he could do was about 55 percent. People who - when he'd cover up the mouth, the eyes still made people yawn because he assumed it was the big, wide open mouth and the stretch that made people want to yawn, but when he covered up the eyes and just showed the mouth by itself, he got a slightly less response and he never could find a yawn that was the perfect storm yawn that would always make people yawn. So, yeah, it seems like it's the eyes or a combination.

Candace Gibson: I'd buy into that because it's not like the parts of your face don't work in conjunction with each other. When I smile, my eyes crinkle or, you know when I sneeze, my nose scrunches up. Everything sort of works in conjunction with each other so I totally buy that! And another theory I buy is that people yawn because their bodies aren't getting enough oxygen and that's a quick way to gulf a whole lot of air right in, is just open your mouth as wide as it can go and get it inside, and if others see you doing this, they might take a queue that their environment isn't supplying them with enough oxygen either so they yawn just when you do.

Josh Clark: And apparently the fact that the eyes serve as a queue for contagious yawning, it's supported by a study of autistics or people with autism that they showed slides of people yawning but they were showing just the mouths and then apparently because with autism get their queues from people's eyes and they had no reaction to it whatsoever which is interesting.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, which is interesting and we know, just sort of general science that people with autism have a little bit less of an understanding of peoples verbal or non-verbal and so it's interesting that they didn't get both parts working in conjunction to have an empathetic response but that they just responded to the eyes.

Josh Clark: Well, it's going to require more study and if you're interested in studying this for yourself, we suggest that you start with Does Contagious Yawning Mean you're Nice? That's available on howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: And we're all going to go take naps.

Josh Clark: Amen.

Candace Gibson: Amen.

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