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Why are you more likely to yawn when others do? New study sheds more light

Have you ever wondered why you yawn when others too? Recently one couple reported yawning back and forth many times, each triggering the other person’s yawn. Why is yawning contagious, you may ask. A new study by  researchers  at University of Nottingham suggests that the  human propensity for contagious yawning is triggered automatically in  an area of the brain responsible for motor function or movement.

The study titled  ‘A neural basis for contagious yawning’  was published August, 2017 in  the  journal Current Biology.

Since yawns are triggered automatically, your ability to reduce the urge to yawn when others nearby do is limited.

How did the researchers arrive at this conclusion?

They recruited 36 volunteers who were instructed to view videos of people yawning repeatedly. The volunteers were then told to either resist yawning or allow themselves to yawn. The participants were videoed throughout, and their yawns and stifled yawns were counted. In addition, the intensity of each participant’s perceived urge to yawn was continuously recorded.

They found that further stimulation or excitement of the brain areas associated with movement increased the urge to yawn in these healthy volunteers.

In a statement  made by   Georgina Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology in the Institute of Mental Health,

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.  In Tourettes, if we could reduce the excitability we might reduce the ticks and that’s what we are working on.

Tourette syndrome is a form of tic disorder that is quite distressing. The individual experiences repetitive movements of vocalizations.

Is this new study on yawning useful?

Yes.  Previous studies have suggested that  yawning  tends to occur when you are more empathetic, because centres in the brain that process emotions make yawning contagious. Therefore, if you identify with a person such as a friend, colleague or spouse, you are more likely to yawn whenever they do.

This new study suggests that yawning is contagious even if the other person is a stranger. Therefore, you do not need to worry if you yawn when others  do.  During meetings and conferences, it is not unusual to find people yawning concurrently. All you need is the first yawn from a tired, drowsy or weary participant. Because yawning is contagious, you may also find yourself yawning when you are not tired.

This study also helps us understand some conditions like autism, dementia and Tourette syndrome.

According to  Stephen Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, in the School of Psychology

“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 that have been linked to increased cortical excitability and/or decreased physiological inhibition such as epilepsy, dementia, autism, and Tourette syndrome.”

Clearly, you do not need to worry about contagious yawning. Nevertheless, yawning could be a source of concern when it becomes excessive.

What does it mean to yawn excessively?

Yawning is excessive when it occurs more than expected.  This usually happens when an individual yawns more than a few times a minute. Each yawn typically involves taking a deep breath.

What are the common causes of excessive  yawning?

Generally, yawning occurs when you are tired, drowsy or weary. Anything that influences these conditions may also result in yawning. Some common conditions:

Insomnia

Epilepsy

Obesity

Medications e.g antidepressants

In view of the serious health conditions associated with excessive yawning, do not delay in seeking medical help if you experience it.

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