If you are like me—and just about half of all people—just a mention of yawning makes you want to open your mouth and yawn.
But a new study, reported by Karen Rowan in LiveScience, found that children diagnosed with autism did not yawn after watching someone else do so. In contrast, 43 percent of children without autism yawned, and 23 percent of children with Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a mild form of autism, yawned.
Researchers posit that these results may have something to do with “mirror neurons,” brain cells that appear to react to the actions of others. It has been hypothesized that the mirror neuron networks in people with autism do not function normally, leading to an inability to read facial expressions, for example.
So what about those of us who do experience contagious yawning? According to one study published this year, “the mechanism underlying contagious yawning relates to the capacity for empathy.” As other species also experience the phenomenon, another study explains that “contagious yawning may be an evolutionarily old process that begot a higher level of social cognition in certain species.”
So if you yawn several times while reading this short blog, don’t dismay: you’re just empathizing with me.