Are yawns contagious?

It’s not very often I set out to write something yawn-inducing but it really can’t be helped. It turns out that not only is the sight or sound of someone yawning contagious, but so is the very thought of it. So remember: if you feel a yawn coming on it has nothing to do with my sparkling prose. It’s just a hazard of the subject matter.

In the definitive study on the subject about a third of people reading about yawning succumbed themselves within five minutes, and three quarters were at least tempted to yawn. Watching yawning on video was contagious, too.

We are sure that yawning is contagious. Unfortunately we don’t know much else about it. Nobody knows why we yawn. There have been all kinds of explanations proposed, from a simple response to bad air, all the way up to complicated social and psychological arguments. Others wonder if it may serve some important purpose in the womb — prenatal yawning is common — which is negated once we are born. Maybe it serves no purpose, the behavioural equivalent of the appendix. None of the explanations so far is truly satisfactory.

There are lots of points in favour of the simplest theory that it is some kind of respiratory reflex. It is common among other animals, for a start (and, like the flu it happily hops species boundaries — dogs can catch our yawns). But if it is so simple then why is it triggered by thinking about it or watching someone else do it? These both suggest that more advanced parts of the brain are involved.

It is a mystery, but I am slowly beginning to see why so little has been achieved. If you think reading about yawning starts your lungs twitching, try writing about it without risking a dislocated jaw.

Yawning is contagious — and I’m afraid you’re already infected. It’s probably only a matter of time before you’re gasping for air and passing the contagion on to those around you. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? Really, though, it’s all a big yawn.

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