VERIFY: Is yawning really contagious?

Yawning is known to trigger those nearby to also yawn. Is this phenomenon backed by science?

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) — Why is it that when someone in the same room yawns, you often end up yawning too? Our sources include a UAMS sleep expert, and a study published in the medical journal called "current biology" and we ask the question.

Is yawning really contagious?

Doctor Caris Fitzgerald is a UAMS sleep specialist who's studied yawning.

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"Yes, yawning is contagious. but scientific studies have also shown that to be true," Caris Fitzgerald said. "And not just in humans but in vertebrates in general, parakeets, dogs cats, wolves."

Fitzgerald verifies yawning is indeed contagious but researchers are confused as to why. Several studies show repeatedly the phenomenon is linked to empathy, or the ability to understand and connect with others' emotions. That contagious yawning begins around age 4. Other studies have been unable to prove those results, and that tells researchers there's another factor they haven't uncovered.

One of those factors could be imitation. In September, in the journal "Cell Biology," scientists found contagious yawning is a form of "imitation" of another's words or actions. Fitzgerald says that too could be true.

"One of the really interesting concepts is that we may have this mirror cell in our frontal cortex that encourages us to mirror other people," Fitzgerald said. "So that might be one reason we take on speaking or language skills and we take on yawning and reciprocate what we see in other people."

Fitzgerald does share that studies have shown if a person has autism or Tourette's syndrome or even a severe psychiatric disorder like schizoprenia, they don't yawn when they see other people do it. Which is also perplexing.

But the short answer is, yes, yawning is contagious. Scientists can prove it, but they have yet to uncover all the possible reasons why.

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