Why Do We Yawn When Others Yawn?

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Have you ever caught yourself yawning right after someone nearby did, despite not feeling particularly sleepy or bored? This seemingly simple act is a curious phenomenon that happens to almost everyone. But why do we yawn when others yawn around us? Is it a sign of empathy, a biological response, or something else entirely? This article takes a look into the scientific research surrounding contagious yawning, exploring various theories and experiments that attempt to unravel this mystifying aspect of human behavior.

The Biology of Yawning

Yawning is a reflex characterized by the opening of the mouth accompanied by a deep inhalation of air and a shorter exhale. Originally thought to be a response to low oxygen levels in the blood, this theory has been largely debunked. Instead, recent studies suggest that yawning could be linked to brain temperature regulation. Yawning helps to cool the brain, potentially resetting its temperature to optimize cognitive efficiency. This thermoregulatory function could explain why we often yawn in situations where attention levels need to be maintained, such as during transitions in activity or when feeling fatigued.

The Mirror Neuron System

One theory that attempts to explain contagious yawning is the concept of mirror neurons. These neurons are activated both when we perform an action and when we observe someone else performing the same action. Mirror neurons are believed to be responsible for mimicking the behavior of others, leading to contagious behaviors such as yawning. The activation of mirror neurons in response to seeing someone yawn may explain why contagious yawning occurs.

Empathy and Emotional Contagion

Contagious yawning has also been linked to empathy and emotional contagion. Studies have shown that individuals with higher levels of empathy are more likely to yawn in response to others’ yawns. This suggests that the ability to empathize with others and experience emotional contagion plays a role in the contagious nature of yawning. When we see someone yawn, our capacity for empathy and emotional connection may lead us to mimic their behavior subconsciously.

Social Bonding and Communication

Contagious yawning may also play a role in social bonding and communication. Yawning synchrony has been observed in groups that are closely bonded, indicating a potential link between contagious yawning and social connectedness. In social settings, contagious yawning may serve as a non-verbal form of communication, signaling affiliation and closeness among individuals. The synchronized yawning within a group can foster a sense of unity and cohesion, strengthening social bonds.

The Role of Neurotransmitters

Neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin are thought to play a role in contagious yawning. These chemicals are associated with social bonding and may influence our propensity to yawn in response to others. Dopamine, known for its role in reward and motivation, could be involved in the pleasurable or rewarding aspect of contagious yawning. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone,” is linked to social bonding and trust, potentially influencing the contagious nature of yawning as a social behavior.


Contagious yawning remains a fascinating and complex phenomenon that continues to intrigue researchers across various fields. By delving into the science behind why we yawn when others yawn, we gain insight into the intricate workings of our brains and social interactions. Understanding the mechanisms behind contagious yawning can provide valuable information about social cognition, empathy, and the neurological basis of human behavior.

Betsy Wilson

A true science nerd and pediatric nursing specialist, Betsy is passionate about all things pregnancy and baby-related. She contributes her expertise to the Scientific Origin.