While previous studies have suggested a connection between contagious yawning and empathy, new research from the Duke Center for Human Genome Variation finds that contagious yawning may decrease with age and is not strongly related to variables like empathy, tiredness and energy levels.
The study, published March 14 in the journal PLOS ONE
, is the most comprehensive look at factors influencing contagious yawning to date.
The researchers said a better understanding of the biology involved in contagious yawning could ultimately shed light on illnesses such as schizophrenia or autism.
"The lack of association in our study between contagious yawning and empathy suggests that contagious yawning is not simply a product of one's capacity for empathy," said study author Elizabeth Cirulli, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Center for Human Genome Variation at Duke University School of Medicine.
Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon that occurs only in humans and chimpanzees in response to hearing, seeing or thinking about yawning. It differs from spontaneous yawning, which occurs when someone is bored or tired. Spontaneous yawning is first observed in the womb, while contagious yawning does not begin until early childhood.
Why certain individuals are more susceptible to contagious yawning remains poorly understood. Previous research, including neuroimaging studies, has shown a relationship between contagious yawning and empathy, or the ability to recognize or understand another's emotions. Other studies have shown correlations between contagious yawning and intelligence or time of day.