Empathy is the ability to understand what someone else is feeling and partake in their emotion, a crucial ability for social animals like us.
Recently, neuroscientists have found that a subset of mirror neurons allows us to empathize with others' feelings at a deeper level.
(Yawn) Scientists discovered this empathetic response to yawning while testing the first hypothesis we mentioned, fixed action pattern.
This study was set up to show that dogs would enact a yawn reflex at the mere sound of a human yawn.
While their study showed this to be true, they found something else interesting.
Dogs yawned more frequently at familiar yawns, such as from their owners, than at unfamiliar yawns from strangers.
Following this research, other studies on humans and primates have also shown that contagious yawning occurs more frequently among friends than strangers.
In fact, contagious yawning starts occurring when we are about four or five years old, at the point when children develop the ability to identify others' emotions properly.
Still, while newer scientific studies aim to prove that contagious yawning is based on this capacity for empathy, more research is needed to shed light on what exactly is going on.
It's possible that the answer lies in another hypothesis altogether.
The next time you get caught in a yawn, take a second to think about what just happened.
Were you thinking about a yawn?
Did someone near you yawn?
Was that person a stranger or someone close?
And are you yawning right now?