We narrow our eyes, open our mouths wide and yawn with relish. And if one does it, soon everyone does it: “For most people, yawning is contagious. Within the first five minutes after the other person yawns, they also have to yawn. Exceptions are children under four years of age and people with a developmental disorder”, says Utta Petzold, doctor at the Barmer health insurance company. Scientists are still wondering why this is the case.

The most likely reason why a yawn is contagious seems to be empathy. According to a study by Steven Platek, people who yawn a lot are among those people who can put themselves in other people’s shoes better. A study by Italian scientists from 2011 also suggests that empathy plays a role: For more than a year, the researchers observed 109 adults from Asia, North America, Europe and Africa in their familiar surroundings.

Their result: we are more likely to be infected by the yawns of people close to us than by strangers. In the study, the researchers determined the following ranking: The study participants were most likely to be infected by the yawning of their family, followed by friends, acquaintances and strangers. According to the scientists, the situation, nationality or gender played a less important role than emotional connection.

So we are subconsciously encouraged to imitate. “For example, if a family member yawns, you’re more likely to yawn than you would a stranger — it’s because of the empathic connection our brain makes that we want to empathize more with the yawning person and unintentionally mimic their actions,” said King’s Reyan Saghir College in London opposite “Realsimple”.

But why we yawn in the first place is still a mystery. The assumption that yawning is a reaction to too little oxygen in the blood is widespread – but this thesis has already been disproved. Another assumption that is being discussed in science: yawning serves to regulate the temperature of the brain. “When the facial muscles relax, heat can be dissipated through the facial veins, and the incoming cool air helps cool the brain temperature through the blood,” Reyan Saghir said.

Sources: Platek study, Italy study, Barmer, Realsimple

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