Contagious yawning may not be linked to empathy; still largely unexplained

While previous studies have suggested a connection between contagious yawning and empathy, new research from the Duke Center for Human Genome Variation finds that contagious yawning may decrease with age and is not strongly related to variables like empathy, tiredness and energy levels.

The study, published March 14 in the journal PLOS ONE, is the most comprehensive look at factors influencing to date.

The researchers said a better understanding of the biology involved in contagious yawning could ultimately shed light on illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism.

"The lack of association in our study between contagious yawning and empathy suggests that contagious yawning is not simply a product of one's capacity for empathy," said study author Elizabeth Cirulli, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Genome Variation at Duke University School of Medicine.

Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon that occurs only in humans and chimpanzees in response to hearing, seeing or thinking about yawning. It differs from spontaneous yawning, which occurs when someone is bored or tired. Spontaneous yawning is first observed in the womb, while contagious yawning does not begin until early childhood.

Why certain individuals are more susceptible to contagious yawning remains poorly understood. Previous research, including neuroimaging studies, has shown a relationship between contagious yawning and empathy, or the ability to recognize or understand another's emotions. Other studies have shown correlations between contagious yawning and intelligence or time of day.

Interestingly, people with autism or schizophrenia, both of which involve impaired social skills, demonstrate less contagious yawning despite still yawning spontaneously. A deeper understanding of contagious yawning could lead to insights on these diseases and the general biological functioning of humans.

The current study aimed to better define how certain factors affect someone's susceptibility to contagious yawning. The researchers recruited 328 healthy volunteers, who completed cognitive testing, a demographic survey, and a comprehensive questionnaire that included measures of empathy, and sleepiness.

The participants then watched a three-minute video of people yawning, and recorded the number of times they yawned while watching the video.

The researchers found that certain individuals were less susceptible to contagious yawns than others, with participants yawning between zero and 15 times during the video. Of the 328 people studied, 222 contagiously yawned at least once. When verified across multiple testing sessions, the number of yawns was consistent, demonstrating that contagious yawning is a very stable trait.

In contrast to previous studies, the researchers did not find a strong connection between contagious yawning and , intelligence or time of day. The only independent factor that significantly influenced contagious yawning was age: as age increased, participants were less likely to yawn. However, age was only able to explain 8 percent of the variability in the contagious yawn response.

"Age was the most important predictor of contagious yawning, and even age was not that important. The vast majority of variation in the contagious yawning response was just not explained," Cirulli said.

Because most variability in contagious yawning remains unexplained, the researchers are now looking to see whether there are genetic influences that contribute to contagious yawning. Their long-term goal in characterizing variability in contagious yawning is to better understand human diseases like schizophrenia and autism, as well as general human functioning, by identifying the genetic basis of this trait.

"It is possible that if we find a genetic variant that makes people less likely to have contagious yawns, we might see that variant or variants of the same gene also associated with or autism," Cirulli said. "Even if no association with a disease is found, a better understanding of the biology behind contagious yawning can inform us about the pathways involved in these conditions."

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Journal information: PLoS ONE

Citation: Contagious yawning may not be linked to empathy; still largely unexplained (2014, March 14) retrieved 17 October 2019 from
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Mar 14, 2014
Face yawning with a body stretch, fires the muscles differently than a mental command. In animals, the facial muscles are skillfully used to catch food. They are also used for communication. Another auto response in people is the clear the throat quiet cough. Seconds later another person will reply with the same sound. So how do animals, predator and prey, stay neurologically and physically fit? They do a yogic yawn. Except for play in the young, there is no training except for the act of hunting with lengthy periods of non hunting, often passive behavior. The muscles are fired uniformly with high strength, the bones are compressed to increase their strength, ligaments and joints are kept at optimun and the brain is trained in isometric detail. Yawning causes everyone to train as a unit. When it comes time to eat, group trained agility is an advantage to survival. In weight training the weight is feedback for powerful mental intensity. The body becomes what pours out of the mind.

Mar 14, 2014
See also "Tension Triggers Muscle Building" 031414.

Mar 15, 2014
Yawned three times while reading the article.

Yawning stimulates muscles in a way that's hard to reproduce consciously. Relieving pressure in my ears, for instance. Or gulping a deeper breath of air. When I want to yawn for those reasons, the only way I can do it is by thinking about it until it happens.

Mar 15, 2014
ha!, as soon as I started reading the article, I started yawning :D

Mar 16, 2014
I think the act of yawning is a simple involuntary spasm to relieve muscle tension and equalize pressure (ie. hiccups, sighing to reset breathing cycle). What makes it contagious is how infrequently we see someone doing it. Over time our innate mirroring system learns to subconsciously control the urge to copy most of the actions we see others doing (It's key to learning). The older we get the less plastic/ likely we are to spontaneously yawn because our involuntary responses are more focused and under control (been there n got beer on my cortex :)

Mar 17, 2014
I think the main benefit of yawning is that it straightens the Eustachian tubes which allows inner ear pressure to equalise with the atmosphere and, I believe, enhances drainage of the inner ear. I don't think that empathy as such is implicated but certainly mirror neurons are involved [hells bells, I know I am sleepy now because it's late but reading, thinking and writing about yawning is setting me off big time at the moment; far more than my normal spontaneous y'g for this time of night.]

Mutual incitement of yawning amongst a family group of apes/hominids especially when just waking up would enhance the collective ability of the group to hear [predators] better. Similarly for times when air pressure changes significantly; pressure difference between inner ear and outside air must reduce auditory acuity.

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