Skip to main content

Faces as releasers of contagious yawning: An approach to face detection using normal human subjects


The yawn-evoking potency of variations in a 5-min series of 30 videotaped repetitions of a yawning face were compared with each other and with a series of 30 videotaped smiles to determine the ethological releasing stimulus for the fixed-action pattern of yawning and to understand the more general process of face detection. Animate video images of yawning faces in several axial orientations evoked yawns in more subjects than did featureless or smiling faces, and no single feature, such as a gaping mouth, was necessary to evoke yawns. The yawn recognition mechanism is neither axially specific nor triggered by an isolated facial feature.


  1. Bruce, C., Desimone, R., & Gross, C. G. (1981). Visual properties of neurons in a polysensory area in superior temporal sulcus of the macaque. Journal of Neurophysiology, 46, 369–384.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  2. DeVries, J. I., Visser, G. H. A., & Prechtl, H. F. R. (1982). The emergence of fetal behavior: 1. Qualitative aspects. Early Human Development, 7, 301–322.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Field, T. M., Woodson, R., Greenberg, R., & Cohen, D. (1982). Discrimination and imitation of facial expressions by neonates. Science, 218, 179–181.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kendrick, K. M., & Baldwin, B. A. (1987). Cells in temporal cortex of conscious sheep can respond preferentially to the sight of faces. Science, 236, 448–450.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Laskiewicz, A. (1953). Yawning in regard to the respiratory organs and the ear. Acta Otolaryngology, 43, 267–270.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Meadows, J. C. (1974). The anatomical basis of prosopagnosia. Journal of Neurological & Neurosurgical Psychiatry, 37, 489–501.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates. Science, 198, 75–78.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Perrett, D. I., Mistlin, A. J., & Chitty, A. J. (1987). Visual neurons responsive to faces. Trends in Neuroscience, 10, 358–364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Perrett, D. I., Rolls, E. T., & Caan, W. (1982). Visual neurons responsive to faces in the monkey temporal cortex. Experimental Brain Research, 47, 329–342.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Piaget, J. (1951). Play, dreams and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Provine, R. R. (1986). Yawning as a stereotyped action pattern and releasing stimulus. Ethology, 72, 109–122.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Provine, R. R. (1989). Contagious yawning and infant imitation. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 27, 125–126.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Provine, R. R., & Hamernik, H. B. (1986). Yawning: Effects of stimulus interest. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 24, 437–438.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Provine, R. R., Hamernick, H. B., & Curchack, B. C. (1987). Yawning: Relation to sleeping and stretching in humans. Ethology, 76, 152–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Provine, R. R., Tate, B. C., & Geldmacher, L. L. (1987). Yawning: No effect of 3-5% CO2, 100% O2, and exercise. Behavioral & Neural Biology, 48, 382–393.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Whiteley, A. M., & Warrington, E. K. (1977). Prosopagnosia: A clinical, psychological, and anatomical study in three patients. Journal of Neurological & Neurosurgical Psychiatry, 67, 394–430.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert R. Provine.

Additional information

The author acknowledges the assistance of Kimberly Provine and David Nodonly in collecting data, and the editorial comments of Marilyn Demorest. Portions of this paper were reported at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Toronto, Ontario, Canada in November 1988.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Provine, R.R. Faces as releasers of contagious yawning: An approach to face detection using normal human subjects. Bull. Psychon. Soc. 27, 211–214 (1989).

Download citation


  • Facial Feature
  • Face Detection
  • Normal Human Subject
  • Agnosia
  • Contagious Yawning