Have you ever heard of echo phenomena? This is an automatic repetition of other words or deeds. An example of an echo phenomenon would be, among other things, a situation where we see someone else yawning and soon imitate him. But why is yawning so contagious? Is there a nerve base that would explain this phenomenon?
Psychologist Robert Provine (1986) mentioned that “Yawning can have the dubious honor of being the least understood of all the most common human behaviors. “Can we now solve this problem years later with the help of neuroscience? Is there one or more scientific explanations for why yawning is so contagious? Let’s be clear.
Why is yawning so contagious?
According to a study commissioned by Romero and other researchers (2014), although many animals yawn, only humans, chimpanzees, dogs, and wolves infect the yawn with their other species mates. But why is yawning so contagious? In this case, we’re just talking about people and focusing on what some of the main explanations have told us about the contagion of yawning:
Activation of the motor area
A study published in Current Biology, completed by a group of researchers from the University of Nottingham in England in 2017, sought to find an answer to the question of why yawning is so contagious.
According to English researchers, this activity would consist of a reflex produced by the brain that is activated in the very area that is responsible for directing and controlling motor activity. Thus, according to the study, the tendency to catch yawning would come from the primary motor cortex of the brain; that area is responsible for performing the movement through nerve impulses.
What did the experiment consist of?
The study taught a total of 36 adult volunteers to curb the yawning reflex while watching video clips of people yawning. All given yawns (including suppressed) were then added up.
with the help of researchers to analyze the possible relationship between the nerve base of the yawning and motor sensitivity. In this way, the group found that it, who is more or less susceptible to the infectious yawning, will depend on cortical awakening of each human primary motor cortex and the physiological inhibition. This would explain why there are people who yawn more and why some in turn yawn less, as well as why some people catch yawning better than others.
Can we suppress the yawning?
But do we always yawn when we see someone else yawn – or could this reflex be controlled? According to the English researchers who conducted the above study, the ability to resist infecting yawning is limited. In addition, they mention that preventing yawning can only increase the need for yawning.
In fact, through electrical stimulation, they were able to see during the experiment how increasing motor sensitivity increased a person’s tendency to yawn when he saw someone else yawn. In other words, we cannot control this phenomenon because we have a natural tendency to do so.
Understanding the causes of certain disorders
The above study may lead researchers to further investigate the causes of disorders that have increased cortical awakening or physiological inhibition. In this type of disorder, such as dementia, autism, epilepsy, or Tourette’s syndrome, patients cannot ignore certain echo phenomena (such as yawning infection), ecolalia (repeating the interlocutor’s words or phrases), or eco-practice (automatic repetition of interlocutor actions).
In this context, research director Georgina Jackson, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the Nottingham Institute of Mental Health, has explained as follows:
In addition, Jackson adds that patients with Tourette’s syndrome could be helped by reducing motor sensitivity to control and reduce the jerks (tic) that are inherent in the syndrome.
Other explanations: empathy, genetics, and synchronization
Prior to this study, many other scholars have also sought to answer this question; many of them saw the spread of empathy as a possible explanation. Thus, when we see someone yawning, unconsciously, we feel compassion for that person and make the same gesture as if it were a reflection of his or her mirror.
There are many supporters of this theory. It suggests that our ability to interpret what others feel would result in us putting ourselves in their boots or feeling the same in this as “primary” action as the yawn is. This, in turn, would lead us to succumb to the so-called temptation of yawning.
Other studies, in turn, have sought to explain the contagion of yawning by referring to the activation of certain empirically typical brain circuits, which include the famous mirror neurons as an important part. Such neurons, as the name implies, would act as an internal reflection of the movements we perceive in other people.
Another possible explanation for this phenomenon relates to communication and synchronization. In this regard, researcher and professor of psychology Matthew Campbell has stated:
In other words, the explanation would come from imitation action; thus, copying the yawn would help the group to synchronize. In this way, according to Campbell, for example, when it is time to eat, everyone eats (eating would also be contagious), and the same phenomenon would occur with many other activities, such as different movements or postures.