Why do we yawn when we see someone else yawning?

"Our psychosocial development will make us yawn when others do."

The Manc The Manc - 21st September 2021

We’ve all been there.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re feeling tired at that moment in time or not, if you’re in the company of someone else who happens to let out a massive yawn and you catch sight of it, it’s only a matter of seconds before you’re yawning too.

It’s unstoppable, and for some reason we have no control over it – but why does it happen?

Yawning is commonly assumed to be the result of trying to get more oxygen, with the average person said to yawn around 20 times each day – and that’s without catching a yawn from someone else – but a look into the science behind why we yawn in a study published in 1987 revealed that there is however no correlation between the urge to yawn and oxygen deprivation.

Instead, as we start to tire, our body yawns to give us a little kickstart.


“As we become tired, especially when viewing uninteresting or non-interactive repetitive stimuli like a lecture, our body yawns as a means to ‘wake up’,” academic surgeon Dr Reyan Saghir told publication Real Simple.

“Studies have shown this to be true where an individual’s heart rate can be seen to rise and peak for 10-15 seconds post-yawn, similar to a kick of caffeine.”


But that still doesn’t answer why it is that yawning is so-called contagious.

The answer to that is likely empathy.

Dr Saghir added: “As humans age, we enhance our psychosocial and neurological development, taking other individuals yawning as a cue that we should yawn as well.”


This is called echophenomena, and isn’t only observable in humans either, as you’ve probably noticed chimpanzees, dogs, cats and a number of other animals let out a big yawn when others around them do too.

Dr Saghir continue: “Studies have shown yawning triggers the ‘mirror neurons’ in the right posterior inferior frontal gyrus of the brain, which are activated when performing goal-directed behavior for true imitation, making the yawning reflex physically impossible to resist as our brains are wired not to.

“As mentally healthy adults, our psychosocial development will make us yawn when others do, but in individuals lacking the correct mental development, the contagious effect of yawning is not seen.”

Did you also know, as Dr Saghir explains, that how close you are to someone emotionally rather than physically could have a role to play in how contagious a yawn is, adding that: “If a family member yawns, you’re more likely to yawn compared to a stranger [and] this is because of an empathic link our brains make that we empathise with the person yawning more and want to mirror their actions unintentionally.”

Featured Image – Unsplash