Why yawning is contagious

Why yawning is contagious

Why yawning is contagious

The human propensity for contagious yawning is triggered automatically by primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex, new research from the University of Nottingham suggests.

By quantifying motor cortical excitability and physiological inhibition for each participant, the team was able to predict each participant's propensity for contagious yawning.

However, scientists were quick to note that they still don't know exactly why we "catch" yawns but that it may be linked to emotions such as empathy. They observed that the excitability of a part of the brain, the motor cortex, was related to the sensitivity of the yawn, which is contagious.

However, no matter how hard we try to stifle a yawn, it might change how we yawn but it would not alter our propensity to yawn, they said.

Based on these examinations, the researchers found that it's hard to resist yawning when you see someone yawn, and that urge only gets stronger when you're told not to yawn. It is a common form of echophenomena - the automatic imitation of another's words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia). Nonetheless, urge-to-yawn estimates increased significantly when participants were instructed to resist yawning. There's even an official name for it: contagious yawning. They then noticed that those who were most susceptible to the yawn contagious, were precisely those in which the motor cortex was the most " excitable ". The research could also have implications for dementia and autism, conditions also affected by increased cortical excitability or decreased physiological inhibition. While the cause of this brain phenomenon is unknown, researchers believe it's tied to neurological conditions like Tourette's, autism and epilepsy, and understanding echophenomena might provide clues for treatment.

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The 36 participants were asked to view video clips of other people yawning and were instructed to resist yawning or allow themselves to yawn; the number of their yawns, stifled yawns as well as the intensity of their apparent urge to yawn were continuously recorded in a video. The researchers also found that people differ in their vulnerability to yawns. They measured the participants' brain activities during the experiment through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

The participants were filmed throughout, and their yawns, and stifled yawns, were counted.

"This research has shown that the "urge" is increased by trying to stop yourself", said Georgina Jackson, a professor of cognitive neuropsychology. If they could reduce excitability in patients with Tourette's syndrome, for example, they may be able to reduce the frequency of involuntary movements or outbursts, known as tics.

"If we can understand how alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders we can potentially reverse them".

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