Most of the research on contagious yawning (though a recent paper questioned this connection) has focused on the role of empathy. But we’re not talking about compassion or even cognitive empathy — we’re talking about a really unconscious, low-level impetus to relate to others.
Think, Platek suggests, of a televised sporting event: If you watch a football player get a terrible sports injury on TV, you might flinch, develop a sympathy pain, or react physiologically in some immediate way. This is the type of empathy researchers are referring to when they discuss its role in yawns. Interestingly, people with autism or schizotypal personality disorder — neurological conditions characterised by a lack of even low-level empathy — do not catch yawns as frequently.
This is the type of empathy researchers
are referring to when they discuss
its role in yawns.