Why are yawns contagious? New research finds clues

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A study named "A neural basis for contagious yawning" conducted at the University of Nottingham suggests that primitive reflexes that originate in the primary motor cortex, a section of the brain accountable for motor function, are responsible for automatically initiating the human tendency for contagious yawning.

Study leader Stephen Jackson, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Nottingham University, said: 'This contagion effect is highly individual, with some people yawning 30 times in our 10-minute session and some not at all.

Why do we yawn when we see someone else doing the same?

The researchers also found that the propensity for "catching" a yawn was linked to the levels of brain activity in a person's motor cortex - the more activity in the area, the more inclined the person would be to yawn.

Next time you try to stifle a yawn, it might be worth discarding polite etiquette by letting your mouth gape for as long as you need because it could help to reveal how smart you are.

What the researchers concluded is that instructions to resist yawning INCREASE the urge to yawn.

Contagious yawning is a form of echophenomena which is the automatic imitation of someone else's actions, BBC News reports. Indeed, when the researchers applied electrical currents to the area, the urge to yawn increased. There's even an official name for it: contagious yawning.

And it's not just humans who have a propensity for contagious yawning.

Professor Jackson said: 'We suggest that these findings may be particularly important in understanding further the association between motor excitability and the occurrence of echophenomena in a wide range of clinical conditions that have been linked to increased cortical excitability and/or decreased physiological inhibition such as epilepsy, dementia, autism, and Tourette syndrome'.

They recruited 36 adults to help with their study. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers measured the participants' brain activity during the experiments. When participants were asked to record the urge to yawn, those asked to hold it wanted to do it even more.

The researchers also tried to manipulate contagious yawning through a kind of electrical stimulation. If they could reduce excitability in patients with Tourette's syndrome, for example, they may be able to reduce the frequency of involuntary movements or outbursts, known as tics. "We are looking for potential non-drug, personalised treatments, using TMS that might be affective in modulating inbalances in the brain networks".

According to Professor Stephen Jackson, if the way by which alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders is understood, it can possibly be reversed.

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