Have you ever thought about why when others yawn, you also yawn despite not being tired? Have you ever yawned after hearing someone on the phone yawn? Or worse, are you yawning right now because you are reading the word “yawn?”
The answer to this question requires a discussion as to what exactly causes someone to yawn in the first place. Most people associate yawning as a sign that someone is tired. Scientists argue that yawning occurs when one’s blood contains increased amounts of Carbon dioxide (CO2) and thus the body instinctively triggers a yawn to quickly inject oxygen into the bloodstream. However, this theory is not solid and many experts question whether the oxygen received during a yawn is more than that of normal respiration. Other theories for the causes of yawning include stretching, boredom, nervousness, and even controlling brain temperature.
I am personally of the opinion that yawning may be any of these IF I’m in a room by my lonesome. But if I’m in a room with someone else, and he or she yawns and I’m NOT tired, NOT nervous, and NOT bored, then why on earth am I yawning as well??? After doing some research on this issue, the best reasoning I’ve heard thus far is from V.S.. Ramachandran’s Mirror Neuron Learning by Imitation theory. I will save you from the technical mumbo jumbo and give my best summary.
According to Mr. Ramachandran, the cause for contagious yawning may lie with “mirror neurons” in the frontal cortex of the brain, which upon being exposed to stimuli from another organism, registers an imitative impulse in our own brain. These imitative impulses are the driving force of much human learning, including language acquisition. Yawning is an offshoot of this impulse, thereby rendering it nearly impossible to resist because the mirror neurons instinctively tell us to imitate whatever it is we are seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing. Mr. Ramachandran also believed that the mirror neurons could initiate an imitative response from a difference species animal (thereby explaining why dogs will typically yawn if they see you yawn and vice versa).
To put this theory to the test, I have inserted a picture of an interspecific organism (fancy language for the crazy looking donkey below) that is yawning. Please look at the picture and make note of your response, if any.
If you yawned, then the theory is correct. The mirror neurons in your brain recognized a yawn (even though it wasn’t a human being) and triggered an imitative response. If you didn’t yawn, at least you learned a valuable lesson from Mr. Ed’s evil twin here: PLEASE COVER YOUR MOUTH WHEN YOU YAWN!