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A Question For The Ages: Why Are Yawns Contagious?

Feb 19, 13 A Question For The Ages: Why Are Yawns Contagious?

You’re sitting in the front lobby of your favorite restaurant waiting patiently to be seated when the lady next to you yawns. Then you yawn. Then your significant other yawns, then your children, and repeat until its time to eat. Why is that?

It’s a question we’ve surely all pondered. Even more surely, we’ve heard crazy superstitions and nonsense answers: why are yawns contagious? Changes in atmospheric pressure, subconscious influence, the mirror neuron effect, and the list goes on and on.

Tons of scientific research lends to the theory that contagious yawning is an empathetic act. Just like smiling, frowning, or crying, when we see someone emoting, that emotion is thrust upon us whether we like it or not. That statement holds even more truth when the person we see emoting is someone we know or love.

If your wife cries, it makes you sad. If your baby laughs it makes you smile. Simple.

Research From the University of Pisa published in 2011 suggests that “the more you bond, the more you yawn.”

As National Geographic explains, “The findings suggest that yawning is a form of empathizing with people experiencing a feeling, which—in the case of yawning—usually means stress, anxiety, boredom, or fatigue.”

“This is the important point: By reenacting the mechanism, it’s like you share emotions, so your response is higher because you mirrored each other’s emotions,” said study co-author Ivan Norscia of the Natural History Museum at the University of Pisa in Italy.

In the study, the researchers spent a year collecting behavioral data from more than a hundred adults of different nationalities.

“The scientists recorded several variables, such as the subjects’ relationships to one another, countries of origin, genders, and styles of yawning, i.e., open-mouth versus suppressed yawning.”

The research team then developed a statistical model based on their data and verified the effects of each variable on contagious yawning.

“In the model, only social bonding emerged as a predictor of response to another person’s yawn, according to the study, published December 7 in the journal PLoS ONE.”

The research provides “a pretty compelling case that empathy may be involved in contagious yawning among humans,” said Andrew Gallup, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University who has also studied yawning.

It doesn’t stop with humans though. Research published on redOrbit even concluded this to be true in chimpanzees.

“In the study, 23 adult chimps were shown several nine-second video clips of other chimpanzees yawning. Not only was the yawning contagious, but chimpanzees yawned 50 percent more often when the ape in the video was a member of their own social group, as opposed to a stranger.”

Contagious yawns are also less likely amongst children, since it’s based on empathy, and young children usually have yet to develop such complex emotions.

Ironically, I’ve yawned probably more than 20 times while writing this blog, but I don’t know any of subjects of the experiment, any of the people in the stock photos used for the featured image of this blog, or any of the chimps for that matter. Yet for some reason, I can’t stop yawning. I must be filled with empathy.

The reason for my questioning this yawn phenomenon is, one day I was playing Xbox Live, and I heard one of my teammates yawn. (For anyone who doesn’t know, Xbox Live is the hub used for online gaming through Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console, and includes chat capabilities with microphones/headsets.) When I heard the guy yawn, I yawned; then one of our other teammates yawned. We proceeded to pass it around like a hot potato two or three times.

Strange. We were complete strangers, and couldn’t see one another, so the suggestions of atmospheric pressure, and mirror neurons are completely out. Although I don’t consciously have empathy for strangers who I play with online, there’s really no other explanation.

Image Credit: Bevan Goldswain / Shutterstock

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  • Anonymous

    Islam provides the answer for where yawning comes from.

    It comes from a devil (a kind of corrupt jinn), and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) warned us to avoid yawning because the devil laughs when you do that.

    Allah’s Apostle said: When one of you yawns, he should try to restrain it with the help of his hand since it is the Satan that enters therein.

    If you want proof that devils can communicate from long distances, check out one of the Ghost Adventures episodes, in which it was apparent that they were communicating, even though the ghost investigators were in different states of the US.

    The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Yawning is from Satan and if anyone of you yawns, he should check his yawning as much as possible, for if anyone of you (during the act of yawning) should say: ‘Ha’, Satan will laugh at him.”

    Al-Tirmithi reported a Hadith, and graded it as sound and authentic that Abu Hurairah (Allah’s blessings be upon him) narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Sneezing is from Allah, and yawning is from Satan. If anybody amongst yourselves yawns, he has to put his hand on his mouth. And if a person (who yawns) says: Ah, Ah, Satan bursts of laughter on this person. Allah loves sneezing and hates yawning. If a person who yawns says: Ah, Ah, then Satan will laugh from inside this person’s stomach.”

    It is also reported in Saheeh Muslim and Sunan Abu Dawud and Musnad Ahmad that Abu Saeed Al-Khudri said: “The Prophet (Sallallahu Alaihi wa Sallam) said that if anybody amongst yourselves yawns, he has to put his hand on his mouth because Satan enters, i.e. from his mouth,” as it is reported in the narration of Ahmad.

    Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “If you hear the crowing of the rooster, then ask Allah of His Bounty, for it has seen an angel. And if you hear the braying of a donkey, then seek refuge with Allah from the Shaytaan, for it has seen a devil.” [Bukhari]

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=super-chicken-vision-10-02-26

    However, donkey vision has not been studied though it is known that they can see almost 360 degrees for the purpose of detecting predators and other “threats”. In the Qur’an, the heads of devils are compared to the shoots of the fruit-stalks of a tree that springs out of the bottom of hell. In Islam, we believe angels and devils are invisible to human vision in their pure form. The possibility of invisible beings should not come as a surprise since, if you look at the range of the electromagnetic spectrum that humans can observe, it is very limited. Chickens, on the other hand, see a wider range of the electromagnetic spectrum so therefore can see colors that we cannot. I do not this as a coincidence. This is just another example of how scientific research continues to confirm Islam. The proof of Islam and the existence of a creator is available for those who are open-minded and willing to examine the evidence.

    May Allah guide to you the truth brother. Peace be unto you.