Study suggests neural mechanism behind contagious yawning

Prof Stephen Jackson TMS

Previous studies into contagious yawning have linked the mystery phenomenon to empathy, but scientists have uncovered a possible biological explanation. But the reason why yawns spread from person to person, or animal to animal, is unknown.

In other words, "the "urge" to yawn is increased by trying to stop yourself from doing so", senior study author Georgina Jackson, a professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Nottingham, said in a press statement published by the varsity.

The team made the discovery while studying the copycat effect of the yawn by showing 36 people clips of it. Our urge to yawn is increased if we are instructed to resist yawning.

The work with electrical stimulation suggests that the brain's primary motor cortex plays a role in contagious yawning, the researchers said.

The automatic imitation of someone else's words or actions, such as yawns, happen because of a trait called echophenomena, and humans aren't the only ones who involuntarily yawn when they see other people do it - chimpanzees and dogs do it too. In another experiment, the participants were given the same instructions, but the researchers also applied electrical currents to the people's scalps. That in turn boosted people's propensity for contagious yawning.

But anyone trying to stifle their yawns at a particularly tiresome work meeting or date is fighting a losing battle, scientists have found.

The Research findings showed that our urge to yawn is increased if we are instructed to resist yawning. They focused on the motor cortex, since it's involved in planning and movement.

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"If we can understand how alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders we can potentially reverse them", Professor Stephen Jackson said.

The researchers also found that the urge to yawn - our propensity for contagious yawning - is individual to each one of us.

Echophenomena can also be seen in a wide range of clinical conditions linked to increased cortical excitability and/or decreased physiological inhibition such as epilespsy, dementia, autism and Tourette syndrome. The findings have led scientists to look for personalised TMS treatments which could help to "modulate imbalances in the brain networks".

Another surprising finding was that when participants tried to stop themselves from yawning, they further increased the "urge" they felt to yawn. It is something you know you have to do even if you don't want to at that time.

Regardless of the cause, it's probably a safe bet that you're yawning right now.

The full paper "A neural basis for contagious yawning" is can be read on the University of Nottingham's website.

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