Does Contagious Yawning Have A Neural Basis?

Don't bother trying to stifle that yawn! The urge is increased in brain if you try to resist it, study finds

Titled 'A neural basis for contagious yawning, ' the study conducted by the researchers from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom was published Thursday in the academic journal Current Biology. "Various studies have proposed links between contagious yawning and empathy, yet the research supporting this connection is mixed and inconsistent", psychologist at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Dr Andrew Gallup, told BBC News.

Ever wonder why it's impossible not to yawn when you see someone else doing it?

They found that the human intensity for contagious yawning is triggered involuntarily by an area of the brain called primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex.

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. Contagious yawning is a form of echophenomena, the automatic imitation of a person's words or actions-a characteristic also seen in conditions such as epilepsy, dementia, autism, and Tourette syndrome.

Study co-author Stephen Jackson, the professor of cognitive neuroscience, the University of Nottingham, added: "If we can understand how alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders we can potentially reverse them".

Just thinking about yawning makes us yawn, and now scientists think they've figured out why yawning is so contagious.


Humans, dogs and chimpanzees all suffer from contagious yawning, making them more likely to do it after someone else does. The research could also have implications for dementia and autism, conditions also affected by increased cortical excitability or decreased physiological inhibition.

The researchers showed 36 adults video clips of people yawning, and then instructed them to alternate between trying to resist their own yawns, and yawning as much as they liked.

The participants were filmed throughout, and their yawns, and stifled yawns, were counted. Part of the University of Nottingham campus (John Walton/EMPICS) The method found that the electrical stimulation increased cortical excitability, which in turn increased the urge to yawn. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers measured the participants' brain activity during the experiments.

Professor of cognitive neuropsychology Georgiana Jackson said "we are looking for potential non-drug, personalised treatments, using TMS that might be effective in modulating imbalances in the brain networks".

The researchers also discovered that the our propensity for contagious yawning varies from one individual to another. "If we could reduce the excitability, we might reduce the ticks and that's what we are working on".

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