Revealing the Logic of Our Brain behind Irrational Yawning Behavior
You must have experienced or listened by someone that yawning is contagious. You might be exposed to various comments regarding this phenomenon. You might have observed that if someone else is yawning you also tend to yawn. Is the sound of a yawn contagious? Have you ever experienced anyone watching a video or picture of a yawning person tend to yawn instantly? If someone yawns while observing others yawn must be sleepy? Is he getting bored? Because we are social beings so is the yawning transferred socially? These and many other questions regarding the phenomenon of yawn were existing in everyone’s mind. Do you know this debate is now under research and scientific observation? Yes! this is true. Just like everyone, this topic developed curiosity in scientists who observed this phenomenon under scientifically controlled settings.

One of the research conducted during 2013 by researchers in Switzerland who studied this matter. In Zurich University, they gathered 11 volunteers and showed them 3 different kinds of videos i.e. one containing laughing incidents, another containing neutral situations, and a video of yawning person. While the participants were watching videos, their fMRI was recorded. It was found that more than half of the participants who watched other persons yawning in the video were more likely to yawn as they watched the video. The brain area called inferior frontal gyrus was highlighted while they yawned. Whereas, those who were watching videos of laughing or neutral acts showed no activity in this area of the brain. This interesting study revealed brain area to be responsible for making a mirror image in brain cells (through mirror neurons) which tend to be imitated by the person (i.e. the person yawns in response to a yawn).
You can test this with a simple experiment. Visualize an image of a person yawning. Just maintain your focus on the image. Observe what happens. You will be surprised even while reading this article unconsciously some people tend to yawn. You may also tend to yawn unintentionally while visualizing, hearing, or reading about yawn.

There is more to study about the yawning phenomenon. Animal studies have been conducted to gain more insights about the facets of yawning. An article published in Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience revealed more aspects of contagious yawning with respect to social, evolutionary and neuroscience links of human behaviors. In an Italian Zoo, neuroscientists observed twenty-one baboons with respect to behaviors such as yawning, sleeping, nurturing, priming, and walking. They found that not merely observing other baboons led them to yawn, but their yawning behavior was more related to the time they spend in nurturing and grooming of each other. Thus, it is more about the connection, affection, and closeness in the relationship which determines their contagious yawning behavior.

The interesting findings regarding the phenomenon of contagious yawning are opening doors for many other facts. If the mirror neurons play a role in contagious yawning and this behavior is further related to social familiarity and the degree of closeness among creatures, there might be indications that mirror neurons can also show links with imitation or understanding of other person’s experiences. Empathy is the state where a person can put himself in the other’s shoes. Can there be a link between mirror neurons and the development of empathy? We await further discoveries to unleash the topic.

Written By:

Dr. Mehwish Mursaleen

Ph.D. Clinical Psychology

Source: Psychology Today