I yawned my head off in school physics lessons, Psycholinguistics lectures at university had me bored stiff, tedious meetings about nugatory exercises at work made me lose the will to live. It thought I was bored stiff – in reality, I was highly attuned to the social world around me.
Research suggests that those who are prone to contagious yawning — the mysterious phenomenon by which the urge to yawn can be “caught” by watching others doing it — also have particularly high empathy for the emotions of others. Apparently they (we?) notice that others are yawning and then unconsciously mirror their actions.
A study led by Catriona Morrison, of the University of Leeds, indicated that infectious yawning is strongly linked to empathy. She found that people who are good empathisers yawn contagiously about three times as often as people with less pronounced social skills. Research led by Simon Baron-Cohen, of the University of Cambridge, had previously indicated that people who are good at systemising, or understanding how things work, are often not as good at empathising. Dr Morrison tested the theory on 40 students of psychology, an “empathising” discipline, and 40 students of engineering, which requires systemising ability. On average, the psychology students yawned 5.5 times, compared with 1.5 yawns for the engineers in the first experiment, and in a subsequent one, the average score was 28 for the psychologists and 25.5 for the engineers. Dr Morrison said that yawning, which is often related to tiredness, may have evolved as a way of improving alertness in social groups.
So the next time you’re bored stiff you have a “get out of jail free” card!