Cross-species contagious yawning

You know how when you are in a group of people and somebody yawns, and then other people start yawning, and then you too feel the irresistible impulse to do likewise?  Well, if there are dogs in the room, they too very likely will start yawning.

Scientists have studied the phenomenon of dogs yawning when people do.  Furthermore, dogs don’t have to see someone yawn; they apparently hear humans yawning, which makes them want to yawn too.  Researchers speculate whether this is evidence that dogs can actually empathize with human beings.  See  Dogs yawn when they hear people yawn, suggesting they empathize with humans – The Washington Post.

Now looking at this phenomenologically, I don’t recall empathy as a cause of my own yawning.  I don’t notice someone yawning, feeling his boredom, and expressing that by yawning in an act of emotional solidarity.  My theory is that in a group in which one person is bored or sleepy, the chances are good, since everyone is sharing the same experience, that other people are also feeling bored or sleepy.  When a person yawns, that reduces the social pressure to repress the outward expression of what one feels, an inhibition that disintegrates completely when more and more people do it.

Now that dogs can also share in this collective experience is intriguing.  Dogs are social animals.  They demonstrate pack behavior.  And, as we know from the Dog Whisperer, they consider human beings to be leaders of their pack.  If the group of people were to all of a sudden start running, I’m sure the dogs would join them.  Maybe it’s the same for yawning, although the meaning and the communication mechanisms for dogs remain mysterious.

Then again, it’s also mysterious why people yawn, what the connection is between feeling bored or sleepy and opening your mouth really wide.  Does anyone have any theories about all of this?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    When my children were 7 to 10 or so they hated baths. My dog dislikes baths. Dogs therefore demonstrate that they have the social awareness and cognitive abilities of young children.

  • SKPeterson

    When my children were 7 to 10 or so they hated baths. My dog dislikes baths. Dogs therefore demonstrate that they have the social awareness and cognitive abilities of young children.

  • Pete

    Dogs are just stupid. No cat would do this.

  • Pete

    Dogs are just stupid. No cat would do this.

  • helen

    I have read that yawning also causes you to breathe more deeply and therefore helps you “wake up” in a boring situation.
    I did get up at 5, but I have been yawning several times since I began reading this article. Apparently it’s enough to think about it for humans; seeing someone else is not necessary. (I wonder if dogs can do that!) :)

  • helen

    I have read that yawning also causes you to breathe more deeply and therefore helps you “wake up” in a boring situation.
    I did get up at 5, but I have been yawning several times since I began reading this article. Apparently it’s enough to think about it for humans; seeing someone else is not necessary. (I wonder if dogs can do that!) :)

  • http://Drhambrick.com Drhambrick

    Latest research shows yawning may actually be a mechanism for cooling the brain. Maybe it heats up when we’re sleepy or bored and we instinctually try to cool our own brains when we notice someone else cooling theirs.

  • http://Drhambrick.com Drhambrick

    Latest research shows yawning may actually be a mechanism for cooling the brain. Maybe it heats up when we’re sleepy or bored and we instinctually try to cool our own brains when we notice someone else cooling theirs.

  • trotk

    Bored and sleepy are only two of the reasons that people yawn. Being nervous and stressed are two other situations in which people regularly yawn, and there are others.

    Helen – the idea that yawning causes us to breathe more deeply has been refuted. The most recent studies have claimed that yawning decreases our oxygen intake, thus making us sleepier or more bored.

  • trotk

    Bored and sleepy are only two of the reasons that people yawn. Being nervous and stressed are two other situations in which people regularly yawn, and there are others.

    Helen – the idea that yawning causes us to breathe more deeply has been refuted. The most recent studies have claimed that yawning decreases our oxygen intake, thus making us sleepier or more bored.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Drhambrick@4,
    It’s certainly not because of overworking the brain, as in the case of my students who yawn! :D

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Drhambrick@4,
    It’s certainly not because of overworking the brain, as in the case of my students who yawn! :D

  • Tom Hering

    Pete @ 2, when I lie down in bed, one of my cats comes and lays on my chest, face to face with me, and there’s a yawn fest before we both fall asleep.

  • Tom Hering

    Pete @ 2, when I lie down in bed, one of my cats comes and lays on my chest, face to face with me, and there’s a yawn fest before we both fall asleep.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    This made me yawn, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    This made me yawn, thank you very much.

  • Pete

    Tom @ 7 – That cat’s up to no good – He knows that if he can get you yawning you’ll fall asleep. Then he’s running the show.

  • Pete

    Tom @ 7 – That cat’s up to no good – He knows that if he can get you yawning you’ll fall asleep. Then he’s running the show.

  • Kurt

    I’ve been told and have always thought that the contagiousness of it is in the eyes. I mean, even when someone covers up a yawn, you know they are by the expression in their eyes.

  • Kurt

    I’ve been told and have always thought that the contagiousness of it is in the eyes. I mean, even when someone covers up a yawn, you know they are by the expression in their eyes.

  • helen

    trotk @ 5
    Helen – the idea that yawning causes us to breathe more deeply has been refuted. The most recent studies have claimed that yawning decreases our oxygen intake, thus making us sleepier or more bored.

    If that is so, why do I inhale at the beginning and exhale at the end of a yawn?
    [And all it takes to start one is reading the title of this thing!]

  • helen

    trotk @ 5
    Helen – the idea that yawning causes us to breathe more deeply has been refuted. The most recent studies have claimed that yawning decreases our oxygen intake, thus making us sleepier or more bored.

    If that is so, why do I inhale at the beginning and exhale at the end of a yawn?
    [And all it takes to start one is reading the title of this thing!]

  • trotk

    Helen, a yawn does take in oxygen, but the finding of the recent studies is that it takes in less oxygen than ordinary breathing.

    [And you are experiencing the "story yawn," which is the most fascinating incidence of yawning. All it takes is someone to talk about yawning and half the room will start to yawn - you don't even have to see a yawn.]

  • trotk

    Helen, a yawn does take in oxygen, but the finding of the recent studies is that it takes in less oxygen than ordinary breathing.

    [And you are experiencing the "story yawn," which is the most fascinating incidence of yawning. All it takes is someone to talk about yawning and half the room will start to yawn - you don't even have to see a yawn.]


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