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Why are yawns catching?

Why are yawns catching?
Liz Benton from Greater London
age 25-34 (Biology Big Questions)

How are yawns contagious?
Rhiannon Bateman from Swansea
Age 5-14

When people yawn why do other people catch them?
Bri Parker from Somerset
Age: 5-14

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3 Responses

  1. A yawn is essentially a deep breath, filling your lungs with air (and hence oxygen) and then expelling carbon dioxide. A recent study revealed we yawn more if our heads are hot. Thus it is hypothesized yawning is used to cool the brain. As the brain is more efficient when cool, yawning may help when we are tired or bored by making us more alert or able to concentrate. Evolutionary speaking, a catching yawn may be a good thing. If a member of a group is tired, indicated by yawning, and this makes the others in the group yawn too, it could also help them to be more alert and thus be better equipped to avoid danger. Obviously, if the group is sat around watching the TV, this process may be a little redundant.

  2. It’s not just yawns, all facial expressions are mirrored in a group, people just don’t notice as much with smiles or scowls.

  3. Another reason why yawns are catching is that they are one of the more clear examples of the broader process of simulation or copying other people’s behaviour. There is increasing evidence that when we interact with other people we are unconsciously taking on their body states. So if another person suddenly looks to the left, our own eyes and attention moves to the same place; when they smile or frown, our own face muscles take on the same emotion; and when we observe them kick a ball for example, the motor areas of our brain controlling the feet become active. These things happen automatically and most of the time we are unaware of this (in contrast to yawning). One idea is that by copying other people’s bodily states we are better able to understand them, because we are having similar bodily experiences. Certainly seeing someone yawn stimulates the same action in us, and we begin to feel like the person we are interacting with. And, as the previous answer noted, yawning in particular might be important, since one theory suggests that yawning increases oxygen intake, thus waking you up – if yawning makes other people yawn, then the whole group becomes more alert – vital if on the look-out for predators that might attack!

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