Yawning – The Contagiousness

How many times did you yawn during that?

I became fascinated by the concept of yawning being infectious when we did an exercise in class recently where we were forced to yawn. I thought it would be quite tricky making myself yawn but, surprisingly, once I saw my partner yawn, it came quite naturally.

Just in case you didn’t know, a yawn is a reflex reaction where a long, deep breath is taken in with your mouth wide open (which often easily transforms into pandiculation – yawning and stretching at the same time). Yawning is usually linked with fatigue or boredom. This is because a stimulus for yawning is low oxygen levels in the blood, which is then replenished by the deep breath. Though most species yawn, only humans, chimps and dogs are known to “catch” a yawn.

There are many believable theories as to what causes a yawn to be “contagious” but no scientist is certain yet. One (unlikely) hypothesis is that as you see another person yawn, the brain mentally panics into thinking they might take up all your oxygen so makes you yawn in competition against them.

A more plausible idea is that this feature is due to mirror neurones (in the frontal cortex) which trigger the same areas in the brain as the other person who yawned previously. This imitation of yawning is also seen as a survival impulse, a means for protection: the take in of oxygen by a group makes everyone more attentive (hence it occurring when we’re exhausted or uninterested) in case of predation.

It might seem like a trivial matter I’m informing you about but the key importance about contagious yawning is the people who don’t tend to do it. You see, this contagion is also perceived as a symbol of empathy and autistic children are not likely to follow this trend. This reveals how a person with autism does not have that emotional connection and this seemingly insignificant attribute could very possibly assist doctors in identifying and comprehending development disorders.

Even as I’ve typed this, I have been continuously yawning – this being because of the psychological effect of writing about it or due to my constant lack of sleep, I can’t figure out.


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