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For Find Out Friday Week 29- Is Yawning Contagious?


Yawning is something we all do. It is apart of our biology. But it is like breathing? Is it involuntary or are we just doing it subconsciously?

You know the old adage about yawning being contagious; do you think that it is true? It certainly seems to be. But a friend of mine told me another theory. He heard that it is a sign of sympathy and that sociopaths do not have an impulse to yawn when they see someone else do it. They are simply are devoid of feeling.

“Neurologists found through brain imaging: Contagious yawning is associated with the same parts of the brain that deal with empathy. These regions, the precuneus and posterior temporal gyrus, are located in the back of the brain. And although the link between contagious yawning and empathy has been established, explanations for the link are still being investigated.”

Apparently it has to do with the perceptive of connectively and interestingly enough those with Autism or other disorders that effect the way we perceive other’s emotions affect their rate of contagious yawning.

Steven Platek, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, told Smithsonian Magazine: “data suggests that you're more likely to catch a yawn from a close friend or family member than from a stranger.”

It is also worth noting that children under age six do not have the capacity to contagiously yawn. I suspect that is because their ability to correctly assess emotions around them is still developing.

I decided to find out the truth.

A yawn is defined as a “reflex consisting of the simultaneous inhalation of air and the stretching of the eardrums, followed by an exhalation of breath.”

Well that sounds painful and not at all how I would describe a yawn if pressed to.

We all know that we yawn when we feel tired and that occurs most frequently around bedtime or right before we fall asleep. As a sometimes insomniac, I can tell you that I yawn plenty without ever actually falling asleep and that is annoying on many levels.

But it turns out contagious yawning, if there is such a thing, is not human specific and can also be found in chimpanzees, dogs, birds, and reptiles. 

Scientists have debated whether contagious yawning exists, if so what the causes are, even why we yawn at all in the first place. The most recent studies found contrasting opinions.

Duke University found that factors like empathy, rate of exhaustion, or energy levels are not relevant to contagious yawning.

But in a contrary position psychologists at Leeds University in England concluded in their study “that contagious yawning is linked to empathy. But women, who are generally considered more emotionally attuned, didn't score any higher than men”.

So with empathy being the first possible cause of contagious yawning the second would be a deep need of oxygen. It is believed that yawning is a way for your body to purge carbon dioxide and give a jolt of oxygen to your body especially your brain, especially when you are tired….another symptom of yawning we all associate with the action.

The third supposedly cause of yawning deals with the temperature in our brains. There are those who believe yawning is the way we cool down our brains, there is even a study that proves people holding ice to their heads effects their relative rate of yawning.

“That could also help explain why yawning is so contagious among certain animals: Oxygen levels are generally a personal thing, but it's the ambient temperature that dictates whether a yawn will effectively cool down an active brain or not. So if one member of the group starts yawning to cool down, it makes sense that others would unconsciously take the hint.”

The last remaining theories about contagious yawning are about activity or rather inactivity. It is a way to signal to our brains that it is not time for sleep, that we are bored, or lastly, nervous. “Paratroopers have been noted to yawn in the moments before they exit the aircraft.”

I don’t know which theory I agree with but each sounds plausible.

All I know is that while writing this I didn’t yawn once despite the heavy weight of my eyelids from sheer exhaustion. I pray when I climb into bed tonight I yawn and fall fast asleep. At that point the reason won’t be so important to me.

I wonder if you too were able to pass the yawn-o-meter.

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