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You Yawn. She Doesn't Yawn Back. Uh-Oh

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 - 03:00 PM

Robert Krulwich/NPR

You are at a table for two, sitting with your girlfriend or boyfriend, when, for no good reason (you can't help it, you didn't mean to do it), you yawn. It's a big, gaping, jaw-extending, embarrassing yawn and because you didn't cover your face, oh God, she/he sees it. A second or two goes by, and then ... something doesn't happen. Your girlfriend/boyfriend doesn't yawn back.

Should you be alarmed?

I ask because in his newest book (about to be published) , science writer Sam Kean has a startling idea about yawning and true love.

"Yawns," Kean writes, in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, "are a rich neuroscientific subject." Lots of animals yawn. Snakes do it. So do dogs, birds, turtles, apes, monkeys. It's a very old reflex; but in people, yawns can be contagious. We can catch them and send them. That's rarer. Only humans, baboons, chimps and (sometimes) dogs do that.

Babies Can't Catch A Yawn

And humans, writes Kean, "don't pick up contagious yawning until [age] 4 or 5, implying that we need to develop certain parts of the brain first, probably related to social skills and empathy."

In 2011, researchers at the University of Pisa chose 109 men and women from different countries and carefully recorded their day-to-day activities, making special note of any contagious yawning.

They discovered that if you yawn in front of your closest relatives — your parents, brothers, sisters, children — that yawn is especially contagious. Chances are high that those family members will (carefully covering their faces) yawn back.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

But if you yawn in front of a group of close friends, there will be fewer yawns in return. The contagiousness seems to drop as day-to-day familiarity and empathy decline.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Going the next step: When you face a group of casual acquaintances, or even strangers, the scientists reported, your yawn may lose most of its contagiousness. You might get only one (hand-covering) yawn-returner.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

Timing also tells tales. The scientists noticed that yawns move more quickly from senders to catchers when relationships are close. The delay between yawn and response was greater for acquaintances than for strangers, suggesting that the closer, more familiar, more attached you are to the potential "catchee," the more likely he or she will promptly return the yawn.

The lesson here is: If somebody is really into you, your yawn should boomerang right back — or so it seems. That got Kean thinking. Imagine you are back at the table for two, face to face with your girlfriend, at close range. You're crazy about her and things seem to be going fine. Then you yawn.

There's a pause. She's looking right at you.

Robert Krulwich/NPR

And she doesn't yawn back. Or she takes four seconds longer than she did last month.

Call it "Sam's Yawn Delay Predictor." In a footnote at the back of his book, he wonders "if you could tell someone was falling out of love with you by timing their yawn delay?"

It's an intriguing notion, and if you wish to add the spice of science to what you suspect is a flagging love affair, here's what you can do: If you sense your partner is losing interest, bring a stopwatch on all your dates, yawn, and start measuring. Let's see if Kean is right. Does increasing the yawn delay mean she's breaking up with you? Hey, as someone never said, "When your heart is breaking, try science."

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Comments [15]

Jefferson from Columbus, Ohio

Are fake yawns (consciously/voluntary opening your mouth as if yawning when the urge to do isn't present) any less contagious than legitimate yawns? Can the brain detect a legit yawn (involuntary reflex) from a phony one? Is it immoral to purposely attempt to spread yawning through faux yawns?

Apr. 05 2014 02:09 PM
Cindy from Boston, MA

I yawned 8 times while reading this post! Now I want some coffee...

Apr. 04 2014 02:32 PM

I seriously think yawn to something here... I'll have to try this out the next time I'm dating someone. Then again, maybe my yawns aren't the issue.

Apr. 03 2014 09:18 PM
Dan from Montreal, QC

Suppose you're really close to your significant other, you've lived with them for years. Some days you get along well and some days you don't. On the days that you don't, does this mean you are less close in the sense relevant to yawning? Another example: on days that you don't like your closest relatives very much (which might be frequent), are you less likely to catch their yawns? Or are you still close enough to them socially so that you'll catch their yawns even when you hate them?

My point is there seems to be a jump in logic from "yawns are more contagious with close relations," to "the contagiousness will fluctuate depending on how you feel about that close relation on a particular day".

Apr. 02 2014 05:12 PM

Thanks a lot, now I can't stop yawning! Does this mean I love your blog?

Apr. 01 2014 04:33 PM
endre m from oslo, norway

and if she wasn't falling out of love already, she just might if you sit there timing her yawn response on your would-be romantic date

Mar. 31 2014 10:28 PM
Earl from la

my hats off to any of you who were able to read this whole thing with out you yourself yawning.... I yawned twice

Mar. 31 2014 09:16 PM
Keith Owen from Indiana

"The delay between yawn and response was greater for acquaintances than for strangers, suggesting that the closer, more familiar, more attached you are to the potential 'catchee,' the more likely he or she will promptly return the yawn."

I do not understand how this conclusion is made. Would the delay between strangers not be greater, if present at all?

Mar. 31 2014 04:45 PM
Juliana Del Beccaro from California

100% testing this out next time I see my boyfriend!

Mar. 31 2014 03:58 PM
Joshua Gauthreaux from Austin TX

What does it say about me that I yawned several times while reading this post?

I love the post! I think it was all the pictures of people yawning. I'm still doing it! JEEZ!

Mar. 30 2014 11:50 AM
Joshua Gauthreaux from Austin TX

What does it say about me that I yawned several times while reading this post?

Mar. 30 2014 11:49 AM
jo from Chicago, IL

I must be especially empathetic. I yawn when I hear my coworker yawn in the next cubicle and can't even see him.

Mar. 28 2014 09:37 PM
Mallorie from Las Vegas

Is there any research which deals with people yawning when simply thinking about it? I yawn if someone mentions yawning. I yawned 4 times while reading this article. I have always know they were contagious, so assumed it was normal to yawn at even a mention. I just yawned again writing this.

Mar. 28 2014 12:41 PM
–Frank. from Hamburg, Germany

You forgot to mention cats — they yawn too.
But to them it seems to be part of their communication system.
Yawning in the direction of a slightly relaxed cat will result that the cat will relax even more.
In some cases –but not always– the cat will mirror the yawning.

Obviously yawning to them means "There’s no danger around and I do not intend to hurt you".

The same applies to willful, slightly prolonged eye blinking when looking a cat straight in the eye.
It will blink back.
The blinking person (or second cat) seems to communicate that he or she has no intention to hurt the cat.

This communication even works with big cats, I’ve tried it with lions in the zoo.
(Imagine that: a grown up man standing quietly in front of a lion’s cage, yawning and blinking … but indeed, funny enough, they blinked and yawned back at me.)

I have no intention to try this with big cats in the wild, mind you, but it seems rather interesting to me all the same.

Keep up your good work,
a listener from Germany
–Frank.

Mar. 27 2014 04:46 AM
charlene from NH

I have looked all over this site and have not yet found out why the handler's hand was bitten and how the chimp told her she was sorry. ??????

Mar. 26 2014 09:00 PM

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