Rather than empathy, the contagious nature of yawning may be highlighting something very different. “We’re getting insight into the human herd: yawning as a primal form of sociality,” Provine says. Yawning may be, at its root, a mechanism of social signalling. When we yawn, we are communicating with one another. We are sending an external sign of something internal, be it our boredom or our anxiety, our fatigue or our hunger—all moments when we may need a helping hand. In fact, yawning may be the opposite of what we generally think. It’s less likely a signal that you’re tired than a signal that it’s time for everyone around you to act.
At its most fundamental, a yawn is a form of communication—one of the most basic mechanisms we have for making ourselves understood to others without words. “It’s often said that behavior doesn’t leave fossils,” Provine says. “But, with yawning, you are looking at a behavioral fossil. You’re getting an insight into how all of behavior once was.”
Fascinating. Not boring.