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Why Yawning is Contagious? Is There an Answer?

You are already yawning, aren’t you! Yes, yes, we know! Yawning is contagious and as we are writing this, we are yawning too! But why yawning is contagious? We will try to find the answer to this question here. So, keep reading. At times, the answer can become a bit complicated but we will try to keep this write-up as simple as possible.

The Urge

You may have noticed that even the mere mention of yawning can make us yawn. Things tend to get worse when someone else nearby is yawning. It is then that our urge to yawn knows no limit. No matter how hard we try, we just yawn. When someone asks us not to yawn when someone else is yawning right next to us, we may try to stifle our yawn and successfully change the way we yawn but that never alters our urge to yawn.

A Study – Why Yawning is Contagious

A few scientists from the University of Nottingham tried to answer this puzzle in their study that they named ‘A neural basis for contagious yawning.’

Yes, these scientists call this urge to yawn when someone else does that next to us as ‘contagious yawning.’ The study by the University of Nottingham scientists was published in Current Biology – an academic journal.

The Echophenomena

Whenever someone yawns right next to us, the urge to yawn or ‘contagious yawning,’ as the scientists say, in us, is triggered involuntarily.

This, according to scientists, is a common type of echophenomena.

What is echophenomena? It is nothing more than an automatic imitation of someone else’s words or actions. When we involuntarily imitate someone else’s words, it is called echolalia. When we involuntarily imitate someone else’s actions, it is called echopraxia.

And…

puppy yawning - why yawning is contagious
Puppy Yawning

Humans aren’t the only ones who do this. There are dogs and chimpanzees as well who ride the same bandwagon as we do!

Wild baboon yawning
Baboon Yawning

Interestingly, echophenomena is also seen in a variety of clinical conditions such as increased cortical excitability and/or reduced or decreased physiological inhibitions such as Tourette Syndrome, autism, dementia, epilepsy, etc.

Is There a Neural Base for Contagious Yawning? – The Experiment

Scientists did not know whether echophenomena has some kind of neural base or not. So, they decided to find out by experimenting. They roped in 36 volunteers – all adults and they used what is called TMS or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

The purpose of the study was to find out what exactly goes on in the brain when a person catches a yawn.

In the experiment, the volunteers were divided into two groups. One group was shown video clips of others yawning and were asked to yawn freely. The other group was shown the same video clips and were asked to try and stifle their yawns. The instructions were later reversed for the two groups.

In another experiment, the two groups were asked to repeat the same thing but only this time, the researchers went ahead and applied electrical currents on the scalps. These electrical currents were not meant to harm the participants but to stimulate the motor cortex that is responsible for controlling yawning in humans.

During both the experiments, all 36 participants were asked to give an estimate of their urge to yawn using a sliding scale.

The scientists found something interesting! The participants partially succeeded in resisting yawns. There was an increase in the number of stifled yawns while the number of full yawns was fewer. It turned out that when the volunteers were asked to resist or stifle their urge to yawn, they experienced a greater urge to yawn!

girl yawning - why yawning is contagious
Girl Yawning

So, when you try to stifle your yawn, your urge to yawn will increase!

The researchers figured out that more the level of brain activity in the motor cortex of the brain, the greater is the urge. This was proven when the volunteers were given electric currents. The currents managed to increase the activities in the motor cortex of their brains.

What does that mean? It means that if the activity level in the motor cortex of your brain can be reduced, your urge to yawn will also reduce.

The scientists or the researchers who conducted this experiment say that this finding can be especially useful in case of neurological disorders like Tourette Syndrome in which the person suffering from this syndrome just cannot resist certain actions.

Is That the Only Study to Find Why Yawning is Contagious?

No, not really, no! Several studies were performed earlier. There is a popular belief which says that contagious yawning is strongly related to energy levels, tiredness, empathy, etc.

A study from Duke University, however, stated that the notion is false. They say that there is no such thing called a strong relation between contagious yawning and empathy, energy levels, or tiredness.

The study found that contagious yawning may decrease with age!

baby girl yawning
Baby Girl Yawning

There was yet another study that was conducted in 2010. The study came from the University of Connecticut and the researchers found that most children will not be predisposed to contagious yawning until they attain the age of 4. The study also found that children who have autism are far less likely to be predisposed to contagious yawning.

Interestingly, contagious yawning is way different from spontaneous yawning. For instance, spontaneous yawning happens for the first time in the womb! Yes, an unborn baby yawns in its mother’s womb. Contagious yawning, on the other hand, will not set in until early childhood.

The researchers from Duke University found that some people are way more susceptible to contagious yawning compared to other individuals and there is no strong relationship between contagious yawning and the time of the day or intelligence or empathy!

What’s the Final Answer? Why Yawning is Contagious?

The problem is that no one still knows for sure! More studies are required to find the answer to this puzzle. The study from the University of Nottingham did find a connection between contagious yawning and the brain’s motor cortex activity level but that doesn’t answer the ‘why’. It only finds a link. There is no answer. We don’t know why we get the urge to yawn when we see someone else yawning. All we know is what triggers it and what causes the fluctuation in the intensity of the urge to yawn.

We have to wait a little longer to find the answer to the question, ‘why yawning is contagious?’

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