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Is yawning contagious?

yawning woman_15_06_12Yawning: the often-daily bodily function that remains a mystery to most. Why do we yawn – and what’s more, is it as contagious as it appears?

What is it?

The act of yawning is the stretching of our mouths, simultaneous inhalation of air and stretching of our eardrums – and when you add a body stretch to that, it’s known as pandiculation.

Although yawning is commonly associated with tiredness, stress and a lack of sleep, one of the most recent theories proposed is that the process of yawning is brought about the brain, and is designed to cool it. With studies demonstrating that people are more likely to yawn when their brain is warmer.

But there are other theories behind the action; such as the idea that yawning is induced in order to draw more oxygen into our bodies or it is something we have inherited from our ancestors who used it to show predators their teeth. Remember: animals (including snakes and fish) also yawn, so it’s not something limited to the human race.

Is it contagious?

This notion of yawning as a relic of our past lives as predators is a proposed theory behind the contagiousness nature of a yawn. After all, most of us have experienced the overwhelming urge to yawn just as soon as someone in the same room – or even on the TV – stretches their mouth wide and inhales – but why?

Well, latest research, carried out by scientists at the University of Albany in New York say it’s not copying someone’s tiredness, but rather ‘triggered by empathic mechanisms which function to maintain group vigilance”. Although other theories suggest contagious yawning could be caused by unconscious herding behaviour – a way to communicate with those around us in the same way that hunting animals do.

And so, yawning still remains somewhat of a mystery, although it is certainly something that occurs involuntarily and can be triggered by other doing the same. Whether it is our animal instincts shining through, who knows? But next time you yawn, for a fun experiment, cover your mouth and see whether anyone else subsequently yawns without even seeing you do so.

Picture credit: Shutterstock

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