People associate yawning with being tired or bored, but there may be another reason: yawning is contagious. Many students may have experienced this phenomenon first hand; if one girl is yawning in class, another will be inclined to do the same. Why does this happen?
According to a study in the science journal Current Biology, contagious yawning is a form of echophenomena, copying someone else’s actions or words. This behavior may be caused by mirror neurons – neurons that imitate the behavior of another. It has been suggested that these neurons are linked to empathy and even learning language for the first time. So, can we conclude that contagious yawners are more likely to “feel your pain?” According to this study, no. Just because one yawns more frequently than others does not make one more empathetic.
This study also proved that contagious yawning is completely out of our control. Thirty-six people were gathered to watch videos of people yawning. Some were told to try to resist yawning and others were told to just watch. Although many of those who were instructed not to yawn tried to stifle their yawns, the number of yawns in each group were almost identical.
Studies have demonstrated that the more excitable one’s motor cortex is, the more inclined one is to yawn. This means that the more quickly signals are sent to the brain, the more prompted one is to yawn. Some people have more impulsive brains and are more likely to do involuntary actions. However, others have less excitable motor cortices, resulting in fewer involuntary actions. So look out for those who yawn often; you never know what they’ll do next.