Why are yawns contagious? This question’s always bugged me…

I think I’ve mentioned to all of you before that I love TED talks. If you aren’t familiar with them, I highly recommend you take a look. TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED started in 1984 and stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design but today topics range from global issues, family stories, business models, etc. They are such a wonderful way to learn something new or hear someone else’s story about a topic you’re interested in (or just want to learn a bit more about quickly. Remember, they are all less than 18 minutes).

So the other night, I ran across this TED video talking about why yawns are contagious and they spoke of 3 possible Hypothesis for the unusual and sometimes annoying occurrence. Here is a summary of that video for your reading pleasure.

While scientists still don’t fully understand why it happens, there are many hypotheses currently being researched.

Fixed Action Pattern

This is when yawning is triggered by a specific stimulus from an initial yawn. Think of fixed action pattern like a reflex. Your yawn makes me yawn. Similar to a domino effect, one person’s yawn triggers a yawn in a person nearby that has observed the act. Once this reflex is triggered, it must run its course. Have you ever tried to stop a yawn? It is pretty much impossible.

Non-conscious Mimicry

Or otherwise know as chameleon effect. This occurs when you imitate someone’s behavior without knowing it, a subtle and unintentional copycat maneuver. People tend to mimic each other’s postures. For instance, if you are seated across from someone that has their legs crossed, you might cross your own legs. This hypothesis suggests that we yawn when we see someone else yawn because we are unconsciously copying his or her behavior. Scientists believe that this chameleon effect is possible because of a special set of neurons known as mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that responds equally when we perform an action as when we see someone else perform the same action.

Empathy Yawn

Recently, neuroscientists have found that a subset of mirror neurons allows us to empathize with others’ feelings at a deeper level (empathizing with the yawner). Scientists discovered this empathetic response to yawning while testing the first hypothesis we mentioned, fixed action pattern. This study was set up to show that dogs would enact a yawn reflex at the mere sound of a human yawn. While their study showed this to be true, they found something else interesting. Dogs yawned more frequently at familiar yawns, such as from their owner’s, than at unfamiliar yawns from strangers.

Still, while newer scientific studies aim to prove that contagious yawning is based on this capacity for empathy, more research is needed to shed light on what exactly is going on. It’s possible that the answer lies in another hypothesis all together.

To watch it yourself, here you go:

What do you think?


Sleep Well,