Understanding what yawns are and why we do it

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We tend to yawn when we are tired, bored, or if someone else yawns. The first two instances make sense. If you are tired or bored you engage in this activity but why do we yawn simply because someone else does? It is strange that others have such power over our bodies. Why do we yawn? How can others make us yawn? Is it a concern? Read on to find out everything you need to know about yawns. I purposefully wrote the word ‘yawn’ a lot during this first paragraph as even reading the word yawn can make someone yawn. So, did you yawn?

No one is certain why we actually yawn or what role it plays in our lives. It is clear that people yawn when they are tired or bored. Some scientists believe that we yawn because in a tired or bored state we tend to breathe in less oxygen and our body wants to fix this by taking in a large amount of oxygen instead. It may also be a subtle reminder by the body to the brain to simply say hey you need sleep, go to bed.  Brain temperature may also be a factor. A study of rats showed that when they yawned their brain temperature reduced so it may be a method of the body to cool this vital organ. Although strange, that does make sense. Yet why do we yawn when others do?

Most scientists believe that we yawn when others yawn as a sign of empathy. It has been proven that yawning is contagious and reading about yawning or seeing people yawn can make others yawn too. Studies have shown that almost 70% of people will respond to seeing a yawn by yawning and the other 30% will not. While those 70% will not yawn every time they see a yawn they are consistently found to replicate the behavior while the 30% are consistently found not to. If you don’t respond by yawning, does it mean you lack empathy? Does it make you a bad person?

There is some support for this theory. Children do not replicate yawns until about the age of four which is when they start to develop empathy. This does suggest that the ability to empathize plays a role but it has not been proven. One college study did ask students to watch videos of people (some yawning) and also to complete a personality test. It found that those who scored lower in empathy were less likely to yawn. Yet other studies have shown no correlation. This may be because other factors play a role too.

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Age is seen as a strong determining factor and one study found this as the only statistically significant factor, with empathy, time of day, and intelligence all ruled out. While age was a factor it only accounted for 8% of the reason, so clearly there are other factors that determine this relationship. 

Amazingly it is not only humans that catch yawns in this way. Animals have been shown to yawn when they see other animals yawn too. Impressively it was found that if an animal opens their mouth it will not replicate a yawn. Animals will only empathize with a true yawn. Even more impressive is that it has been proven that dogs can also catch a yawn from humans. While some people have found cats do the same thing, conclusive data is lacking in this respect. In animals it was found that the youngest members also did not yawn, again showing that they lacked some core function of brain development for this to take place.

The results have shown that there are more questions than answers about yawning at present. While we can’t conclusively say that those who don’t catch yawns lack empathy, there certainly appears to be some relationship there. We also can’t fully explain why people yawn at all. All I know is that I have yawned about 15 times while writing this article and I hope you have too (although ideally not from boredom).

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