Whenever someone around you yawns you feel the need yourself. You may be able to stifle it but generally speaking you just go with the flow and yawn yourself. You might even have just yawned RIGHT NOW simply because you are reading about! It is such a ubiquitous part of life that you may not have ever given it much thought, but when you do think about it, it seems quite strange. Why on earth are yawns contagious? What makes us yawn when we see someone else yawn.
There are two types of yawning, spontaneous yawns and contagious yawns. Spontaneous yawns are the yawns you do when you are tired or bored, you do not think about them, they just come. The contagious yawn is the yawn that you do when you see someone else yawning and for some reason have the urge to yawn yourself.
Contagious yawning has been studied by a number of experts, there is clearly something very interesting going on here, some kind of strange social connection that means that people want to yawn when they see someone else yawn. Some of the studies have argued that contagious yawns are related to empathy, with some recent studies showing that it is also related to our predisposition towards empathy -- the ability to understand and connect with others’ emotional states. However, many other researchers, including a team at Duke University, think that this is too simplistic an answer.
The Duke researchers argue that contagious yawning actually decreases with age and that there is little to no connection between yawning and empathy, or indeed even between yawning and tiredness or being bored. They came to this deduction after recording the yawns of over 300 people yawning whilst themselves watching a video of people yawning.
They found that some people were far more likely to contagiously yawn than other participants where, with the number of yawns during the 3 minute video range from 0 to 15. The major variable in whether the participant yawned much or not was age. The researchers found that the older someone was the less they were going to yawn as they watched the video of other people yawning. Though they did stressed that age was only able to explain about 8 per cent of the differences in yawn rates to the video.
Elizabeth Cirulli, who is an assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Genome Variation at Duke University School of Medicine and study author, said that, “The lack of association in our study between contagious yawning and empathy suggests that contagious yawning is not simply a product of one's capacity for empathy.”
They also found that people with schizophrenia and autism were far less likely to contagiously yawn and believe that by furthering our understanding of contagious yawning we may be able to understand more about these disorders.
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