Is yawning just related to sleep deprivation? There are other theories. Learn why we yawn when we see someone yawning.
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Yawning is a natural act for both humans and several animal species. We start yawning when we’re still in our mothers’ tummy. It’s so natural that we don’t always realize we’re doing it and, many times, it happens simply because we see someone else doing the same thing. But why do we yawn when we see someone yawning?
Why do we yawn?
Some scientists explain that yawning is related to the physiological need to cool the brain. According to these investigations, our brain works better when it is at a certain temperature. Yawning increases heart rate, blood circulation and the use of our facial muscles which allows us to breathe in fresh air, essential conditions for cooling our brain.
But what can cause high temperatures in our brain? Exhaustion and sleep deprivation, which explains why we habitually yawn when we are exhausted and sleepy.
Although this physiological explanation is important, it does not explain why we yawn when we see someone else yawn. There is something contagious about yawning that can only have a social explanation.
So why do we yawn when we see someone yawning?
To understand why we yawn when we see someone yawning, there’s nothing better than seeing it for yourself. Watch the video below and see how long you can go without yawning.
It’s hard to resist isn’t it? Don’t worry, it’s natural that way. It’s even likely that just reading this article has already yawned several times. You can’t imagine how many times I yawned while writing it, they were immense!
Contagious yawning starts around 4/5 years of age, when empathetic behavior and the ability to identify emotions begins to develop. So, watching the video above, a child with a disorder involving the ability to empathize (eg autism) would yawn less than a child without any disorder.
Yawning also seems to fulfill a social function. Thus, another possible explanation for this phenomenon of contagious yawning is related to the existence of mirror neurons in our brain. When we see someone yawning, these neurons fire in a similar way and as a result we mimic yawning.
In this way, when we observe someone yawning, the mirror neurons simulate the same action in our mind and this simulation leads us to adopt the same behavior.
Testing this theory is easy: concentrate and imagine a yawn in your mind. Keeping that mental image will most likely make you actually yawn. The ability to simulate other people’s actions through mirror neurons means that we have the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others.