Have you ever heard about the echo phenomenon? It is when people automatically repeat the words or actions of others. An example of an echo phenomenon is when we see someone yawning and we imitate it almost immediately. But why is yawning contagious? Does a neural basis explain this phenomenon?
Psychologist Robert Provine (1986) said the following: “Yawning can have the dubious distinction of being the least understood common human behavior. Now years later, can we solve this question through neuroscience? Is there only one explanation or more than one? Let’s find out.
Why is yawning contagious?
According to a study by Romero et al. (2014), although many animals yawn, only humans, chimpanzees, dogs and wolves seem to have ‘infectious’ yawns. But why does yawning become contagious? Let’s look at the case of humans and what some of the most relevant statements say.
Motor area activation
A group of scientists from the University of Nottingham (England) conducted research in 2017 that appeared in Current Biology . They tried to find an answer to the question of why yawning is contagious.
According to the English researchers, this action is due to an automatic reflex in your brain. It is activated exactly in the area that controls motor functions.
Thus, according to the study, the tendency to follow other people’s yawns originates in the primary motor cortex of the brain. This is the area responsible for carrying out movements through neuronal impulses.
What was the experiment to find out if yawning is contagious?
A total of 36 adult volunteers participated in the study. They learned how to control their yawning. They were then asked to watch video clips of people yawning. Finally, all the yawns that came (including the suppressed ones) were counted.
Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) techniques, researchers analyzed the possible relationship between the neural basis of yawning and motor excitability.
The group found that a person prone to “contagious yawning” depends on the cortical excitability and physiological inhibition of their primary motor cortex.
This would explain why some people yawn more and others less. It also explains why some people seem to copy other people’s yawns and why others don’t do so as often.
Can we suppress yawning? Is yawning contagious?
So, we are almost pre-programmed to yawn when we see someone else yawning. or can we control this reflex?
According to the same English researchers, the resistance to this contagion is limited. In addition, they also concluded that trying to suppress your yawn could actually increase the need to yawn.
During the experiment, electrical stimulation even allowed them to see how increasing motor excitability increased the tendency to imitate other people’s yawns. So the truth is, we can’t really control contagious yawning because we have an innate predisposition to do it.
Understanding the Causes of Certain Conditions
This study may also help researchers studying other conditions. They may be able to more accurately determine the reasons behind disorders with increased cortical excitability or decreased physiological inhibition.
We are talking here about disorders such as:
- Tourette’s Syndrome
In these conditions, patients cannot avoid certain echo phenomena (such as yawning), echolalia (repetition of words or phrases spoken by the other person), or echopraxia (automatic repetition of the other person’s actions).
The head of this study, Georgina Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham, explains:
“We suggest that these findings may be particularly important to investigate the association between motor excitability and the occurrence of echo phenomena in a wide range of clinical conditions associated with increased cortical excitability and/or decreased physiological inhibition, such as epilepsy, dementia, autism and better understand Tourette syndrome.”
Furthermore, Jackson adds that it could help patients with Tourette syndrome by reducing motor excitability and then reducing tics.
Other explanations: empathy, genetics and synchronization
Prior to this study, other scientists tried to answer this question in a different way. Many of them suggested that communicating empathy was one possible explanation.
So when we see someone yawning, we subconsciously sympathize with him or her. We make the same gesture without being able to avoid it, as if we were their mirror image.
This theory has many adherents. It suggests that the ability to interpret how others feel would lead us to put ourselves in their shoes or feel the same, even in such primary actions as these. So if you see someone else yawning, you can’t stop yourself from doing the same.
Some studies trying to explain why yawning is contagious refer to the activation of certain brain circuits that are characteristic of empathy. These are the circuits that contain the well-known mirror neurons. These neurons would act as an internal reflex of the movements we observe in other people.
Another possible explanation for this phenomenon has to do with communication and synchronization. In this regard, researcher and psychology professor Matthew Campbell states the following:
“One possibility is that in social species that coordinate their activity levels, copying yawning may help to synchronize the group.”
Sync the group
This statement suggests that an impersonation would take place and that copying the yawning would bring the group in sync. Campbell says we can see this reflected in our eating habits. When it’s time to eat, everyone eats.
Here we could regard food as something contagious. This can also be the case if we are tempted to copy the movements and postures of others. In short, these are the two main explanations behind this phenomenon. You can choose which one you think is the right one!