Have you ever been sitting there, oh say mid afternoon with a bunch of friends where one just let’s lose with a big ole yawn and before you know it, the contagion is being passed around the room with a virility typically associated with a stadium wave at pennant time? Also why is it that we even yawn in the first place?
For starters no one is really for sure why we do this, thou the most common belief is we do if for physiological reasons to stimulate our bodies as during the 6 seconds of an average yawn your heart rate will increase by some 30% and the enlarged opening of your mouth will allow more oxygen to enter your lungs. This natural “kick” if you will is the basis for the “drowsiness theory“, however it is also very common for competitive athletes to yawn before completion and here they are assuredly not drowsy. This leads us then to the “Evolution Theory” where it said that this allows us to show our teeth as a means of social intimidation and may explain as mentioned that it’s common for athletes to yawn just prior to an event.
One of the final theories is that of “boredom” as it’s our minds way of telling the body it’s time for a change by inducing stimulation and actually this theory could be used to tied the other two together as in the athlete example, it’s signaling a time for change as to move from the readying process to the “main event” while providing for that extra bit of stimulation coupled with the intimidation of showing ones teeth to the competitors.
While the reasons for yawning are an interesting study on their own, what is even more interesting is how they pass from person to person in such a viral fashion? As we know it’s not via sight as a blind person upon hearing a yawn will also “yawn” and in fact even reading of yawning will cause a yawn. So it’s here where the yawn appears to separate itself from say the smile as you read the word “smile“‘ are you likely to smile? Most likely not and this is one of the reasons researchers are so interested in this anomaly.
To this end, researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Georgia under took research with chimpanzees who also know how to “yawn“. In these experiments Matthew Campbell and Frans de Waal played two types of videos for their primate test subjects. One set was of known members of the subjects group yawning, while the second was of non-group members also “yawning”.
What the two researchers found was intriguing as known members triggered a 50% higher contagious yawn as a result then did non-known subjects. The summary of this leads the researchers to believe “yawns” are passed by empathy which explains several other social anomalies too. Of which one is people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) tend not to contract contagious yawns as frequently as a person without ASD as their mechanisms for empathy recognition lack the ability to make this connection.
So the next time you’re in a meeting, either let loose with a real one, or fane a darn good yawn and see who are the first to respond as they are likely the ones with the greatest empathic connection to you…
P.S. Even a fetus in the womb yawns…