Is Yawning Contagious?


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Have you ever seen someone else yawn after you had previously done so? Or even better, have you ever yawned as a result of witnessing someone yawn in your presence? I know I have and find this unexplainable urge vyawn5.jpgery interesting. What makes us want to yawn after witnessing someone else initiate the act? Is yawning truly contagious?

It turns out that it is completely an unconscious thought, meaning that we can see someone yawn, replicate the act, and have never once think about what was actually taking place. The Finnish government conducted a brain study that showed the contagion of yawning bypasses the "mirror-neuron system" which becomes active when we consciously replicate another's actions. It would be simple to just attribute this phenomenon to the MNS, however this is not the case and there are several different, unproven hypotheses at this time.

One known fact is that seeing someone yawn activates the "superior temporal sulcus" area of the brain, but this is believed to be unrelated to any mimicking functions. On the other hand, researchersyawn2.jpg noted that the "left periamygdalar region" became strongly deactivated when witnessing a yawn. This section of the brain deals with the "unconscious analysis of emotional expressions in faces," but it is unclear at his point what connection having the urge to yawn from viewing another's would have from this deactivation. From their study, it was concluded that contagious yawning has nothing to do with brain functions at all, and is instead a primitive response preprogrammed in us from centuries ago.

 Riitta Hari, one of the lead researchers, later stated that it seems to be an "'automatically released, and most likely very archaic, motor pattern.'" This concept falls along the same lines that were discussed in class when Andrew said woman experience menopause at age 40 because ancient humans only had a lifespan of 40 years. That occurence is still existing even though it was practical many years ago. With the contagion of yawning, "in early humans, yawn contagiousness might have helped people communicate their alertness levels to each other, and thus coordinate their sleep schedules" which could have helped groups survive and be strong as one.

Finding out that it was our ancestors which cause us to yawn in response to someone else's I found very interesting. It makes you wonder, what else might we experience that can be attributed to our ancient relatives? We can only hope that it is something that is in today's age more useful than yawning...

 

Sources:

http://www.world-science.net/exclusives/050309_yawnfrm.htm 

A study conducted by the Finnish government. Published for WorldScience.com in 2005

4 Comments

This really made me think about other actions that we do that get replicated in the process as well. I remember studying for my finals in a group of about 20 other kids in the class. We had this really annoying singer in our class who as soon as he finished studying a segment started to sing a phrase of a famous song; just one phrase. Turns out by the end of the study phase (roughly about 3 weeks) everyone in the class had gotten in to the same habit. I mean, it's not just about the habit but about how unconsciously we pick up these things around us without even realising it. I feel perhaps its the same thing that is happening here. Any thoughts to that?

I had always been told that when you yawn, you are doing so in order to get more oxygen to your brain. The reference of "mirror-neurons" evokes the monkey see monkey do reaction. I take this to mean that if you see someone yawning, your brain sees receiving that extra oxygen as a good idea too.
Very likely though, much of yawning has to do with primal reactions.
And isn't it interesting that we can make our cats yawn too? If I yawn at my cats at home, they will yawn right back in return. And I've seen horses yawn back too.
Maybe yawns are an undiscovered universal language?

I had always been told that when you yawn, you are doing so in order to get more oxygen to your brain. The reference of "mirror-neurons" evokes the monkey see monkey do reaction. I take this to mean that if you see someone yawning, your brain sees receiving that extra oxygen as a good idea too.
Very likely though, much of yawning has to do with primal reactions.
And isn't it interesting that we can make our cats yawn too? If I yawn at my cats at home, they will yawn right back in return. And I've seen horses yawn back too.
Maybe yawns are an undiscovered universal language?

These are both great follow ups to my blog and actually reference ideas that were also briefed upon in the study I read about. To Karanjit, the picking up of the song definitely could fall along the same lines, except that it is now dealing with a different sense, hearing. Maybe it was that your class unconsciously associated that tune with studying and productivity, so it stuck without anyone realizing until later. Also, Amy, I love the idea of us subconsciously yawning because we "think" it is a good idea to get more oxygen to the brain as well. You might also like my other blog "Why Do We Actually Yawn?" Imitating another's actions is a primitive form of learning and follows the hypothesis that this study formulated. And if yawning could be interpretted as a universal language, I will definitely take notice now if my cat ever returns the favor back home.

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