Have you ever heard of the echo phenomenon? This means that people automatically repeat other people’s words or actions. An example of this phenomenon is when you see someone yawn and then practically automatically imitate them by yawning as well. But why is yawning contagious? Is there a neural explanation for this?
As psychologist Robert Provine said in 1986, “Yawning may differ from other human behaviors in that it is one of the least understood.” But can we now answer this question with the help of neuroscience more than 30 years later? Is there only one explanation or even several? That’s what we want to find out in today’s article.
Why is yawning contagious?
Although many animals yawn, according to a study by Romero et al. (2014) this “contagious” yawn can only be observed in humans, chimpanzees, dogs and wolves. But what actually makes yawning contagious? Let us investigate this question in relation to humans and see what the most relevant explanations have to do with it.
Activation of the motor cortex
A group of scientists from the University of Nottingham (England) carried out a study in 2017 that was published in the journal Current Biology . The researchers wanted to find an answer to the question of why yawning is contagious.
According to the English researchers , this action takes place due to an automatic reflex in your brain. It is activated exactly in the area that is responsible for controlling motor functions. Hence, according to this study, the propensity to mimic other people’s yawns stems from the brain’s primary motor cortex. This is the area that is responsible for performing movements through neural impulses.
How exactly did the experiment take place?
A total of 36 adult volunteers took part in the study. First, they were taught how to hold back their yawns. The researchers then asked the test subjects to watch video clips of people yawning. All released yawns were counted (including the suppressed ones).
Using transcranial magnetic stimulation techniques (TMS), the researchers analyzed the possible connection between the neural basis of yawning and motor excitability.
Based on the results obtained in this way, the scientists found that the “susceptibility of a person to“ contagious yawning ” depends on the respective cortical excitability and the physiological suppression of the primary motor cortex.
In addition, this would also explain why some people yawn more and some less. It also explains why some people appear to mimic other people’s yawns while others do so less frequently.
Can we hold back the yawn?
So are we almost genetically programmed to yawn when we see a person yawning? Or can we also control this reflex? The same English researchers say that the ability to withstand this contagious effect is limited. They also concluded that the fact that you are trying to stifle that yawn may actually increase your need to yawn.
In fact, through electrical stimulation during the experiment, the scientists were able to observe how increasing motor excitability also increased the tendency to imitate other people’s yawns. Hence the truth is that we cannot really control this “contagious yawn” because we are innately predisposed to it.
Understand the causes of certain disorders
In addition, this study could actually help the scientists researching other disorders and diseases as well. This is because they may be able to more precisely determine the reasons behind disorders in which there is increased cortical excitability or decreased physiological suppression.
We are talking about disorders such as dementia, autism, epilepsy or Tourette’s syndrome, among other things. Patients affected by these disorders may experience certain echo phenomena (such as yawning), echolalia (repetition of words or phrases uttered by another person), or echopraxia (automatic repetition of another person’s actions).
In this context, Georgina Jackson, the study’s director and professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham, explains:
In addition , Jackson added that patients with Tourette’s syndrome could be helped by a reduction in motor excitability . Because this would reduce the ticks that occur.
Why is yawning contagious? Further explanations: empathy, genetics and synchronization
Prior to this study, other scientists tried to answer this question in a different way. Many of them suspected that the expression of empathy could be a possible explanation for this behavior. When we see a person yawn, we unconsciously feel with that person. Without being able to prevent this, we perform the same gesture. As if we were that person’s reflection.
This theory has many supporters and supporters. She assumes that the ability to interpret how other people feel leads to our empathy, even during such “primary” actions as yawning. As a result, you will also not be able to stifle a yawn when you see someone doing the very same thing.
Some studies looking for explanations for why yawning is contagious refer to the activation of certain brain circuits that are characteristic of empathy. These are the circuits that contain the famous mirror neurons. These neurons act as an internal mirror of the movements that we observe in other people.
In addition, another explanation of this phenomenon is related to communication and synchronization. In this context, researcher and psychology professor Matthew Campbell says the following:
Synchronize the group
This explanation assumes that there is an imitative act and that copying the yawn would synchronize the group. Campbell says we can see this in our eating habits as well. When it’s time to eat, everyone eats. Hence, we could also describe food as something contagious. This could also be true when we are tempted to imitate other people’s movements and postures.
As you can see, there are two basic explanations for this phenomenon. And you can now choose the one you think is the correct one!