Of Yawns and Empathy

Yaaaaawn. Pardon me, just trying to get more oxygen. Now whether I am yawning because I’ve stayed up writing this blog or because I’m trying to expel more carbon dioxide, yawning is just one more thing that we all do. Sometimes without noticing it we yawn when we see people (and even our dogs?) yawning. Alternatively, we yawn on our own and create a ripple of yawns. It’s one of those things we don’t think about, just like hiccuping. But when we stop to think about it, it is actually rather amusing how contagious yawning can be.

Do I feel sorry for you because I kept you up all night? No, I'm just low on oxygen. (Source: Flickr, photo by: twob)

Scientists have come up with many different reasons why we yawn, all providing equally interesting explanations. However, what has scientists buzzing even more is why we tend to yawn when we see others around doing it. And the science of contagious yawning has just as many theories around it as the science of yawning.

One theory that I found particularly interesting suggests that contagious yawning could provide some insight into the roots of human social bonding and the subconscious nature of empathy. A study carried out on children ages 1 to 4 showed that contagious yawning only start to affect us around the age of 4 and that children below that age were less likely to yawn when they see others yawning. Many have proposed that this is because it is only around 4 years of age that we develop the ability to identify how other people around us are feeling and thinking. It has also been suggested that this is the age where we learn to empathize with others.

Interestingly, they also carried out this experiment on children with different levels of autism and observed that those children that were further along the extreme end of the spectrum were also less likely to be affected by contagious yawning. Studies have suggested that autistic children tend to miss out on these small social cues because they might have trouble focusing on the subtleties of this behaviour. For example, they might tend to focus less on the feelings conveyed by our eyes instead of the action of our mouth.

A separate study on huskies showed that only when puppies reach 7 months of age do they catch yawns. In fact, not only did the scientists observe the puppies catch yawns, they also watched as the act of yawning sent the puppies to sleep.

In short, we shouldn’t feel guilty for yawning, it might just be because we’re empathetic beings. But then again, just talking about yawning could also induce yawning. Even more bizarre, reading the word yawn can also cause someone to yawn. So, how many times did you yawn reading this post? Be honest.