There is no doubt that yawns are contagious, and you will know this from your experiences in long, boring lectures or meetings. But, what's thescience behind this phenomenon, and why do we yawn when we see or hear other people yawn? Let’s find out!
Scientists are still contemplating the definite reasons behind why yawning is so contagious, but one thing is certain, contagious yawning is definitely a thing. There are a few theories floating around that explain how this is possible, but one of the most common theories is nonconscious mimicry.
Neuroscientist, Claire Aguirre explained this phenomenon in her TED talk. She calls it the ‘chameleon effect’. This theory suggests that we often tend to unconsciously copy the actions of the people around us, and this is all because of a unique set of neurons called mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons have a very special function that allows us to develop new skills, and it also makes us self-aware. But, how do these neurons trigger contagious yawning? Aguirre explained:
Neuroimaging studies using fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, show us that when we see someone yawn or even hear their yawn, a specific area of the brain housing these mirror neurons tends to light up, which, in turn, causes us to respond with the same action: a yawn!
Yawning is not the only action that is contagious because of social mirroring. Scratching, laughing, smiling, and leg crossing are all examples of behaviours that are subconsciously mimicked during social interactions.
Some scientists also believe that mirroring is a form of social communication that actually exhibits one’s ability to empathize. PBS NewsHour interviewed Thomas Scammell, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School, who elaborated this theory further:
If someone flashes you a nice friendly smile, without even thinking about it, you’re likely to smile back.
It is a form of social communication, and it appears that people who are more empathetic are more likely to have this social mirroring.