Have you ever found yourself copying what your friend does? Psychologists call this mimicry and mirroring. It’s actually quite common to unconsciously imitate how another person talks, how they sit and stand, their gestures, or how they make eye contact. One thing that is perhaps more confusing, and something we might occasionally catch ourselves doing, is copying someone else’s accent at times. You’ve never even been to Scotland, but on talking to a scotsman, you find bits of Scottish threaded into your own accent. Apparently accent mimicking is very common, and if you are musically inclined, we are told you are more prone to it because of your brain’s musical plasticity. But today we are going to talk about something a little different in the realm of “unintentional mirroring”, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Why do We Yawn When Others Yawn?
We should first explain why we yawn at all. Everyone does it, from babies to old folks to cats and dogs and some say fish – but that’s apparently a different kind of yawn. We yawn because we are tired, or perhaps because we are bored, or feeling awkward or anxious. But why that sometimes silent, sometimes loud roar? Why don’t we just blink our eyes instead? Well, as mind boggling as this may sound, we don’t actually know exactly why we yawn, but there are plenty of theories out there.
According to a 2014 study undertaken by Princeton University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, yawning is just a way of regulating your brain’s temperature. We yawn more during certain seasons, according to the study. When your brain gets too hot, you yawn to cool it down as cold air enters your mouth, so we yawn a lot more in summer when we are hot. Still, this theory is a contentious topic among what we might call yawn experts. It also doesn’t exactly explain why we yawn when we are tired or bored at looking at yet another family photo album featuring another trip to Disneyland. Unless, some scientists say, the brain gets hot in these situations due to stress and we yawn to cool it down.
So, another theory says that when we are tired, our breathing slows down and our bodies receive less oxygen. We yawn to get a good old shot of the stuff, and release some carbon dioxide, apparently. The same goes for when we are bored, but that doesn’t explain why we might yawn during a conversation when it seems we are not slowing down. Another theory says that when we are yawning, we are just having a good stretch. We are flexing muscles and joints and moving blood around to stay focused during, say, a two hour lecture on the principles of accounting in the early 20th century. The same might happen when listening to another one of your teacher’s supposedly amusing anecdotes. This theory has also been disproven, as when scientists gave people more oxygen or removed carbon dioxide, it did not affect the number of times people yawned.
There is another theory that you might think is a little out there, but it seems to make sense when we think of animals or early Homo sapiens. Our ancestors would yawn to bare their teeth, and this meant ‘Hey dude, let’s do something different, I’m kinda bored of this.” It signaled the need for a change. That would basically be saying that when you yawn, you are saying, “Stop, change” and then when your friend yawns back, he is saying, “No, you stop, change.” In any case, some people think yawning is a way of communicating a message along the lines of: ‘something is a little bit unpleasant’, but ‘not a great threat’.
This doesn’t explain why athletes might yawn right before a race. This seems related to nerves, similar to the awkward or anxious yawn. Dr. Robert Provine from the University of Maryland was asked about this and he said it’s still a mystery somewhat, and he has studied yawning for more than 30 years. Provine has said the obvious in that yawning signifies changes in states, “sleep to wakefulness, wakefulness to sleep, arousal to de-arousal, or vice versa,” and so to some extent it is a kind of out with the old, in with the new. He said it’s also a kind of stress reduction, but admitted more studies need to be done.
Ok, so we are full of theories now, but still lacking a definitive answer as to why we yawn. Let’s now make this even more confusing and ask why we yawn contagiously, i.e. when others yawn in front of us, or even on the TV, we copy that. It’s said that while most animals yawn, the only living things to yawn contagiously are humans, chimpanzees…and dogs. The New York Times has written about the very serious topic of canines catching yawns, and indeed, it seems our beloved friends copy us when we yawn. The yawns are genuine, too, as the mutts in one study were hooked up to monitors to check signs of real yawning versus just mimicking mouth movements.
Why do humans do it? Some studies hypothesized that the reason we copy yawns is because we are showing empathy. The Smithsonian writes, “The less empathetic someone is, the less likely they are to yawn back.” So, there you go. When someone yawns back at you, you are looking at an understanding kind of person. Kudos to the mirror yawners. According to the same study, psychopaths are very unlikely to catch your yawn. Perhaps if you want to find out if your new friend is a budding Ted Bundy, you should practice yawning in front of him and see what response you get. This was a serious study, too. But it also said that people you know better are more likely to catch a yawn than total strangers. Maybe now you could use yawning as a kind of empath-ometer with your friends and family.
Ok, we are getting carried away. Contagious yawning is what we call an “echophenomenon” which is described as “automatic imitative actions without explicit awareness.” There is also “echolalia” (imitation of words) and “echopraxia” (imitation of actions). But now we are back at the beginning.
One thing one study in the UK came up with after various experiments was that by trying to stifle a yawn, you actually yawn more. A professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Nottingham in England said that yawning was connected to the brain’s motor cortex, so if there’s a lot going on in there, you are likely to yawn. Could this be related to contagious yawning? Perhaps, if the brain is subconsciously fighting yawning.
That’s still not a very good explanation, is it? A study at Duke University refutes what other studies hypothesized and that was that yawning was related to empathy. The paper, called, “Individual Variation in Contagious Yawning Susceptibility Is Highly Stable and Largely Unexplained by Empathy or Other Known Factors,” said that yawning could somehow help us understand schizophrenia and autism. Still, no definitive answers were given to us yawners. It did say that some people are more susceptible than others to contagious yawning. When people watched a three minute clip of people yawning, they yawned anywhere from 0 to 15 times. 222 people contagiously yawned at least once. The one significant conclusion they came to was that the older you get, the less likely you are to catch a yawn.
At the moment, contagious yawning remains one of the many mysteries in the world. If empathy is out the window, no one has any idea why we do it. Unless of course we are just snarling at each other!
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Do you have any ideas about why we yawn? And why we yawn when others yawn? Let us know in the comments!