So, after looking at that cute kid yawning and then reading the word yawn a couple of times, did you yawn or feel like yawning? I yawned and I wrote this!
I was traveling home yesterday at the end of a long Lyft>airplane>shuttle>car ride and my daughter Soji let out a great big yawn. I looked over and immediately felt a huge yawn crawl up my throat and roll out. And because I’m a writer and that means I’m weird, I started to think about the reasons for it.
Why are yawns contagious?
It must’ve served some evolutionary purpose that is now lost to the ages. How could a shared yawn have given the yawners a survival edge?
Yeah, this is the kind of trivia I find fascinating.
Not everyone has the contagious yawn response, but many do. So many, in fact, that there are actual studies in real laboratories with white coat wearing scientists that study why yawns are contagious. Yeah, it feels like that money could be better spent elsewhere, but what do I know?
A long time ago, I studied Japanese swordsmanship at a place called Ishi Yama Battojutso in Seattle. I trained to become a modern day jedi. Yeah, I’ve loved Star Wars more than is healthy since seeing the first one in theaters way back in the day. The sensei at the school was/is one of the best swordsman in the world. He holds the world record for the number of consecutive clean cuts through a rolled tatami mat, which is somewhere over a thousand. Well, he believed yawning was a sign of weakness and we would get in trouble if caught yawning in class. If I remember right, he saw it one of two ways. One, you could be yawning because you’d lost focus and neglected your breathing as he believed that type of yawn was your body catching up on oxygen. Or two, you could be yawning because you saw someone yawn and you yawned in response. That was bad because it meant your mind could be controlled by another. Not like hypnosis. More like that you were too unguarded and so in a mental state that could be manipulated by suggestion. You got punished for yawning either way. I laugh now when I remember how all of us young jedis clamped are jaws tight any time we felt a yawn come on.
I mention this little anecdote because it’s funny and also because it shows one view on contagious yawning. In any case, the reason yawns are contagious is still a mystery. Some research suggests that people who have greater levels of empathy are more likely to contagious yawn. Other research says that’s nonsense and only that older age equates with less contagious yawning. All we know for certain is that contagious yawning researchers believe more study is needed to figure it all out.
But, I’m a fiction writer. I don’t need to figure it out. I can just make stuff up!
On that ride home, a story idea popped into my noodle. A reason why contagious yawning could be an evolutionary edge… and it fit perfectly into a story angle that I’ve already been developing. That’s the power of the subconscious at work. It takes a ridiculous bit of random info and builds a bridge to a larger concept.
My reason for contagious yawning will be revealed in the Recovering Eden series, though I’m not sure which book it’ll be in yet.
Why do you think yawning is contagious? Give me a shout with your angle on it. Who knows? Maybe your idea will be better and somehow make it into a book.