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The urge to yawn increases if we are asked to resist it. Here’s why

Research also found that our ability to control a yawn after seeing others yawn is unique to individuals.

more lifestyle Updated: Sep 01, 2017 11:20 IST
Asian News International, Washington DC
Yawn,Yawning,Why are yawns contagious
Contagious yawning is a reflex action.(Shutterstock)

How often have we tried to stifle a yawn after spotting someone else do it? And why are they so contagious anyway? A new study answers those questions. Experts at the University of Nottingham have published research that suggests the human propensity for contagious yawning is triggered automatically by primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex — an area of the brain responsible for motor function.

Their latest findings show that our ability to resist yawning when someone else near us yawns is limited. And our urge to yawn is increased if we are instructed to resist yawning. But, no matter how hard we try to stifle a yawn, it might change how we yawn but it won’t alter our propensity to yawn. Importantly, they have discovered that the urge to yawn — our propensity for contagious yawning — is individual to each one of us. Contagious yawning is triggered involuntarily when we observe another person yawn — it is a common form of echophenomena — the automatic imitation of another’s words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia). And it’s not just humans who have a propensity for contagious yawning — chimpanzees and dogs do it too.

The neural basis for echophenomena is unknown. To test the link between motor excitability and the neural basis for contagious yawning the Nottingham research team used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). They recruited 36 adults to help with their study. These volunteers viewed video clips showing someone else yawning and were instructed to either resist yawning or to 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. Using electrical stimulation they were also able to increase the urge to yawn.

Georgina Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology in the Institute of Mental Health, said: “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.”

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First Published: Sep 01, 2017 11:15 IST