Find out: why is yawning contagious?

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This is why you always yawn when you see other people do it

Do you always yawn when you see someone else yawn too? You might feel bad about it, thinking that it is rude to yawn while interacting with someone. But it turns out that yawning is actually contagious and that it is a completely normal reflex. Find out why yawning is contagious. Warning: reading this might make you yawn too!


First, let’s look at what yawning actually is. Reyan Saghir, MBBS, BSc (Hons), told Real Simple: “The activity of yawning consists of an involuntary wide opening of the mouth and maximal widening of the jaw followed by a deep inhalation and slow expiration. “Usually accompanied when tired or bored, the science behind an everyday event such as yawning is still not yet fully understood.” So, scientists aren’t completely sure about the ‘why’ of yawning. And this mysterious reflex get’s even more interesting when it turns out that your yawns can affect other people.

Why is yawning contagious?

One of the most likely reasons why we yawn when we see others do the same, is because of empathy. Saghir explains: “As humans age, we enhance our psychosocial and neurological development, taking other individuals yawning as a cue that we should yawn as well.” And this doesn’t just apply to yawning. Subconsciously copying others, or echophenomenon, is something we do every day all day. According to Dr. Saghir, we copy the words that other people use and their actions, all to try and fit in. Mirror neurons are possibly responsible for this. These are neurons that are activated when we ourselves do something that we just saw other people doing. These mirror neurons help us ‘mirror’ the actions of others.

The exact science behind yawning and it’s contagiousness is something that scientists are still trying to figure out. But according to Dr. Saghir, the yawning reflex is one that is “…physically impossible to resist as our brains are wired not to.”


Yawning is only contagious when your brain has fully developed. “As mentally healthy adults, our psychosocial development will make us yawn when others do. But in individuals lacking the correct mental development, the contagious effect of yawning is not seen,” Dr. Saghir told Real Simple. Children, and adults with conditions like schizophrenia or autism, will only yawn when they’re tired and not in response to other people. And when you have a fully developed brain, you tend to yawn along with the people that you care about. Not the people that you don’t really know. “For example, if a family member yawns, you’re more likely to yawn compared to a stranger—this is because of an empathic link our brains make that we empathize with the person yawning more and want to mirror their actions unintentionally,” he explains.

So, now you know a little more about yawning! And next time someone you love yawns while you’re telling a story, you know a little bit about the ‘why’ behind it all.

Read more: Explained: this is why people sometimes lie

Source: Real Simple, Science of People | Image: Unsplash, Sander Sammy