Why are yawns contagious?

We’re in a boring family reunion. Through education we try to stay fit and pretend we don’t care what our older parents talk about.

But the little ones in the house don’t care about good manners. They are bored and have no problem yawning as an obvious act of such a tedious meeting. The invisible breath of air crosses the room. He slowly approaches us. It takes shape deep within our interior and, without being able to avoid it, we respond to the yawn by imitating it.

As the speaker looked at us with an air of indignation, we wonder … Why are yawns contagious? Let’s find out below.

    Why are we spreading yawns?

    Yawning is a human act and not so human that, although it has aroused the interest of the scientific community since science is science, it is still quite a mystery why it originates, and more why it is entrusted. However, some things are clear about such a particular involuntary act.

    The first is that we already manifest it very early, even before they are fully formed, in the womb. You can already see how the fetus yawns just 20 weeks after conception.

    Plus, humans aren’t the only ones yawning. We have seen that animals very close to us also yawn, as is the case with chimpanzees and dogs, respectively. Interestingly, it has also been observed in fish, birds, wolves, and elephants, animals which to a greater or lesser extent have very clear patterns of social behavior.

    While general culture has already told us that we yawn more when we are about to go to bed and have just woken up, scientific research has been tasked with confirming this hypothesis. Outraged, we also yawn when we are hungry and, of course, when we are very bored.

    But what’s surprising about yawns is their high degree of contagion, even though they don’t physically exist while speaking, they are just actions. Almost all of us have had someone yawn around us and, unable to avoid him, we started yawning with him. This is not at all uncommon, as it is pointed out that around 60% of the population is sensitive not only to the act of seeing others yawn, but is also sensitive to hearing others do it and even to reading the word “yawn”. At this point, how many yawns are you already wearing?

    Dance theories

    Let’s go in parts. Before we understand how yawning is spread, we need to understand why it is caused in the first place..

    At first glance, yawning doesn’t seem to have a positive or negative effect on us. If it was something harmful, sooner or later we would have noticed a yawning inconvenience and, without much investigation, it doesn’t seem to offer us anything more.

    However, since this unintentional act occurs in other species and, therefore, it has survived throughout the history of evolution, A utility must have.

    It is for this reason that up to three theories have been raised in the scientific community, with strong support, as to why yawns occur.

    1. The theory of oxygenation

    Even before our era, the Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos (460 BC – 370 BC) supported the idea that we were yawning. as a mechanism to eliminate the harmful air that we accumulate inside us. Somehow it looks like I wasn’t too bad.

    The yawning oxygenation theory defends the idea that when our blood oxygen levels drop, drowsiness occurs. To counter this, the brain yawns to introduce a lot of air into the body, to quickly raise the levels of life gases.

    However, although quite logical, this theory has its detractors, mainly because of the existence of another mechanism which seems to be very effective for this purpose: rapid breathing, as happens when we play sports.

    If the oxygen levels in the blood are reduced, it would be logical to think that before yawning, the body would speed up breathing, a process which involves more oxygen supply to our bloodstream and which is relatively easy to handle. control.

      2. The theory of activation

      As we have seen, and almost a general knowledge of the culture, is the fact that yawning is known to be more frequent before and after sleep. In other words, they happen when we feel very sleepy.

      The idea behind the activation theory is that it yawns to increase our level of alertness. In other words, our brain sends us a message that we need to be more alert.

      However, and while there is not little research to suggest that this theory might be true, it is still quite doubtful whether the alert levels before and after yawning are significantly different. It’s not that we are yawning and being as smart as if we had been drinking a cup of coffee …

      3. The theory of thermoregulation

      Although the other two theories have some scientific support, the theory of thermoregulation is the one that has gained the most strength. This theory maintains that yawning regulates brain temperature, in the form of cooling.

      This makes sense, as it has been observed that body temperature is precisely the highest of the day, and by dancing we may lower it and make our brains work better.

      too much it has been observed that if the ambient temperature is moderate, people yawn more, While low temperatures have the opposite effect. In fact, we have seen that putting wet rags in very cold water on the forehead practically makes yawning disappear.

      The causes of this phenomenon

      Although yawning is present in many species, infection from this unintentional act is somewhat less common.. In addition to humans, other species such as dogs, wolves, chimpanzees, different types of fish and birds, as well as elephants can infect yawns. Based on the fact that most species in which yawning is contagious also have complex social structures, it has been suggested that yawning has a relational function.

      1. Communication and synchronization

      One of the hypotheses of yawning is that it is a mechanism of communication and synchronization between individuals of the same species. In other words, it would serve as a way to organize collective behavior, coordinating the behavior patterns of group members.

      It makes sense since yawning is not the only contagious thing. In the human case and also in dogs, if you see someone eating, you feel like it, and if you see someone moving, it is more likely that you are not standing still. Yawning would serve to synchronize the group either by maintaining the degree of activation or by ensuring that everyone is thermoregulating properly.

      2. Empathy

      Surprising as it may sound, it could be that the degree of empathy is the root cause of the yawning contagion. In this case, it would not only be a mechanism to make the rest of the group imitate and thus synchronize, but a means of attuning behaviorally and emotionally with others.

      Using neuroimaging techniques, it was discovered that the same neurological mechanisms involved in empathy are activated when dancing.In addition to activating the well-known mirror neurons, some cells specialize in the mental replication of the movements we see in others, enabling motor learning.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Bartholomew AJ, Cirulli ET (2014) Individual variation in sensitivity to yawning is very stable and poorly explained by empathy or other known factors. PLOS ONE 9 (3): e91773. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0091773
      • Rossman, Z. et al. (2020). Contagious yawns in African elephants (Loxodonta africana): responses to other known elephants and humans. In front of. Veterinarians. Sci., 1-8.
      • Gallup, AC and Gallup, G. (2008) Yawning and thermoregulation. Physiology and Behavior, 95 (1-2), 10-16.
      • Gallup AC, Eldakar OT. (2013). The thermoregulatory theory of yawning: what we know from more than five years of research. Frontal neuroscience. 2; 6: 188. doi: 10.3389 / fnins.2012.00188.
      • Guggisberg AG, Mathis J, Schnider A, Hess CW. (2010) Why are we yawning? Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 34 (8): 1267-76. doi: 10.1016 / j.neubiorev.2010.03.008.
      • Guggisberg AG, Mathis J, Hess CW. (2010). Interaction between yawning and surveillance: a review of the experimental evidence. Front Neurol Neurosci 28: 47-54. doi: 10.1159 / 000307079.

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