It has happened to all of us: you start to yawn and try to hold back, knowing that it will take you out of the moment—perhaps at work—for just a second. But you have to give in; and then you notice that another person yawns. And then another. And then another.
Or maybe you are the second or third person in the chain.
And we have all wondered, at some point: why are yawns “contagious?”
Well, a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, investigated this to find that our proclivity to pick up on another person’s yawn might have deep roots in primitive brain reflexes.
And by the way: the “contagious” effect of a yawn is known as Echophenomena; it is not the only type of “contagious movement” and it also not exclusive to humans (it can affect chimpanzees and canines, as well).
The research was conducted by researchers at the University of Nottingham who examined 36 adults as they watched video clips of other people yawning. Also, the three dozen participants were instructed to either prevent their own yawns or to let them happen naturally.
Sure enough, the research team found that it is hardest to resist yawning when you see another person yawn. Perhaps surprisingly, though, they also found that the urge to yawn is actually stronger when you try to stop yourself from doing it. And most surprising, they also learned that all people have different levels of vulnerability to that yawn contagion.
According to lead study author Stephen Jackson, “We suggest that these findings may be particularly important in understanding further the association between motor excitability and the occurrence of echophenomena in a wide range of clinical conditions… such as epilepsy, dementia, autism, and Tourette syndrome.”
The University of Nottingham professor of cognitive neuroscience goes on to say,
“Studying contagious yawning helps us to understand the brain mechanisms that give rise to tics. If we can understand how alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders, we can potentially reverse them.”
In addition, University of Nottingham professor of cognitive neuropsychology Georgina Jackson comments, “This research has shown that the ‘urge’ is increased by trying to stop yourself. Using electrical stimulation, we were able to increase excitability and in doing so increase the propensity for contagious yawning,” said Georgina Jackson, a professor of cognitive neuropsychology.”
For example, she notes, “In Tourette’s, if we could reduce the excitability we might reduce the tics, and that’s what we are working on.”