The Reason Yawns Are Contagious

Sep 1, 2017 at 11:40 a.m. ET
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Ever wonder why it's impossible not to yawn when you see someone else doing it? Thanks to a new study, we have a better idea as well as a possible way to help treat disorders such as Tourette's syndrome.

Research published in Current Biology found that yawning is triggered involuntarily when we see someone else yawn. This is a common form of echophenomenon, which is a fancy word for automatically mimicking another person's actions or words. While the cause of this brain phenomenon is unknown, researchers believe it's tied to neurological conditions like Tourette's, autism and epilepsy, and understanding echophenomena might provide clues for treatment.

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Two other interesting findings came from this study. First, if someone specifically tells you not to yawn, it's ever harder to avoid yawning. Along the same lines, if you try not to yawn, it will only make it worse. Second, applying electrical stimulation also caused people to yawn — something that may be used to treat conditions like Tourette's syndrome.

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Contagious yawns aren't limited to humans. Researchers found that the same thing happens among chimpanzees and dogs as well.

"The popular theory for contagious yawning is that it is linked with empathy for others, mimicry and social bonding," Stephen Jackson — one of the authors of the study — told USA Today. "But again the evidence for this is weak. I still think that much more research is required to understand the function and biology of yawning."

Regardless of the cause, it's probably a safe bet that you're yawning right now.

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