Why is Yawning Contagious?

Photo by YGoY

Photo by YGoY

Amber Marten, Opinion Editor

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You’re sitting at your desk doing your work when it happens. You take a deep breath in and your throat feels like a balloon as it swells up. Your mouth opens agape when you exhale that huge breath you took, and your taking your hand and covering your mouth. And sometimes you make a noise when you exhale, this is what we call ‘yawning’.

But what exactly is yawning, and why do people think it is so contagious?

There are many reasons why people yawn. Not only do people yawn when they are tired or bored, but people yawn when they are stressed or anxious. The reason we yawn is to ‘cool our brain’. It’s a weird thing to think about, but it’s true.

On Smithsonian.com, an online news magazine, Marina Koren wrote a story on why yawning was contagious. She interviewed a psychology professor at SUNY College at Oneonta named Andrew Gallup. Gallup explained the process of why we yawn.

The human body generates energy which is called ‘metabolic energy’, and the brain takes up 40 percent of that energy to function properly. And with all that energy, it heats up. Your brain doesn’t actually heat up or become warm, it is just working harder. When you take a deep breath, mucus membranes travel up towards your brain, which is the ‘cooling pad’ for your brain.

When you open your mouth to yawn, the stretching of the muscles in your jaw helps to give movement and circulation to your blood cells, causing some of the blood cells to move to the brain.

When you exhale, some of the cooler air that is coming out of your mouth travels to the mucus membranes that created a ‘cooling pad’ for your brain. With the mucus membranes having the cooler oxygen, the ‘cooling pad’ then begins to cool the brain down to a more functional temperature.

So is yawning contagious? Yes it is. A reporter for ‘Psychology Today’ named Eliezer Sternberg wrote an article explaining why yawning is so contagious.

A study was done by scientists in Switzerland in 2013, where 11 volunteers were to watch various videos with people laughing, yawning, and having no emotion at all. Fifty percent of the time the volunteers yawned when the videos of yawning were presented to them. The other two emotions did not reach the same conclusion when those videos were presented.

Scientists theorize that Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the changes of brain activity by blood flow, system of the brain increased the function known as the Mirror Neuron Network. This network of the brain creates a mental image or depiction of an action. It’s like your brain is playing the game ‘Simon Says’, where it mimics an action that is placed in front of it either by an object or picture.

This theory simplifies to when people watch other people yawn, the mirroring network creates a mental image to process and mimic. And if someone were to really focus on that mental image, your brain will give the order of repeating or mirroring the action. Thus, causing you to yawn when other people do.

Another theory arose from a group of Neuroscientists in Italy who studied the actions and behaviors of 21 baboons in a zoo. The scientists concluded, that during grooming baboons were more likely to yawn from emotional closeness.  No, that does not mean you have to groom your friend in order to yawn after them. This just means the closer you are with a person, the more contagious a yawn will be. And the closer you are to a group of people, the more infectious the yawn will be.

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