Why is Yawning Contagious, Study Says It Might Have Evolved to Increase Vigilance Within a Group


Have you ever wondered why watching someone instantly triggers a similar urge to open your mouth? While scientists have understood the physiological purpose behind yawning, the reason why yawning is so contagious among social animals has left them baffled. According to Andrew Gallup, an evolutionary biologist from the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute and author of the paper, yawning can be a way for groups of animals to sync up with each other and coordinate group behaviors.

One usually yawns while transitioning from one active state to another which can be either waking up from a deep sleep or going to bed after a tiring day. Yawning has long been believed to be a way to exhale carbon dioxide and replenish oxygen. But, now, it appears that yawning may have a greater effect on a cooler blood temperature to calm the brain. A study published in Animal Behavior sheds more light on contagious yawning.

When it comes to sequential contagious yawning between individuals, Gallup explained that this behavior may have evolved to increase alertness within the group. The idea is that if a yawn indicates that a person is feeling sleepy, watching them yawn may alert other members of the group. This compensates for the reduced alertness of the person who yawns and in turn increases the general alertness of the group.

To illustrate the idea, Gallup conducted a study last year. Subjects were shown several images that included threatening stimuli such as images of snakes, and non-threatening stimuli such as images of frogs. People were first made to watch videos of yawning and then were shown pictures. Gallup then tested its ability to select images from a set of images.

He observed that after watching people yawn, one could more efficiently detect stimuli or images of threatening snakes. However, people’s ability to detect an image of the frog remained unchanged, Science magazine reported.

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