Science. Why is yawning contagious? We may finally have an answer

Did you yawn when you saw the photo or when you read the title of this article? Even better, is there someone near you who also yawns? The phenomenon of contagious yawning is well known, but until now it was not known what it was caused by or what it was used for. A study conducted by a New York University researcher and published in the latest issue of the journal Animal behavior may have the answer.

The scientific paper proposes hypotheses to explain spontaneous yawning and those that follow mimicry. And some of the opinions we have on the subject are completely false.

1. Yawning is not for taking a deep breath of fresh air.

That’s an idea received! Although we breathe deeply when we yawn, this movement does not affect the amount of oxygen in the blood. Researcher Andrew Gallup, the study’s author, mentions an experiment that demonstrates this by measuring blood oxygen levels in humans. “It has been concluded that yawning and breathing are controlled by different mechanisms, and there is now consensus in the scientific literature that breathing has no obligatory role in yawning,” he wrote.

Moreover, he reminds us that marine animals also yawn. They open their jaws even though they are underwater and have gills.

2. Yawning doesn’t always mean tired.

Most of the time, they occur during a state change, upon awakening, just before falling asleep, or when moving from a focused state to a relaxed state, or vice versa. But yawning doesn’t always lead to sleep. The study also addressed the occurrence in stressful situations: “In humans, we observed more yawning immediately before stressful or anxiety-provoking events, for example in soldiers before they skydiving first, in musicians before playing and in Olympic athletes before competition This is due to the fact that sudden stress causes a change in our concentration, which can compared to what we feel when we wake up.

3. We yawn to refresh our brains

Whether it’s because you doze off or because you need to focus, yawning is a response to motivate yourself or force yourself to pay more attention. Specifically, research shows that opening our mouth wide helps to cool our brain after its temperature rises. “Yawning is thought to be a compensatory mechanism to cool the brain by speeding up blood circulation, ventilating the respiratory system and bringing in fresh air. And this drop in temperature has the effect of making us more alert and active.

4. It’s a form of communication in animals

If we yawn to keep ourselves awake by refreshing our brains, doing so by simple imitation may seem incoherent. The study explains that it is then a social phenomenon and no longer a physical one. Various theories have been put forward about the cause, empathy, and usefulness of this reflex, which have so far failed to give a satisfactory answer.

Thus, Andrew Gallup suggests that yawning has a role to transmit information, in a group of animals, one of which is slightly less alert. As a result, everyone else around is warned that they must double their concentration to anticipate dangers. “Seeing other people do this will increase the vigilance of the bystanders, to compensate for the drowsiness and distraction of the yawn.”

It has been proven that we are more attentive and alert immediately after seeing or hearing someone yawn. An experiment was conducted in which the participants had to quickly find an image of a snake in the middle of several pictures of frogs. When people saw someone yawn just before, they quickly recognized the endangered animal among the harmless animals.

Finally, perhaps the most important question on this topic: Did Andrew Gallup, the study’s author, spend time yawning during his research? He answered the question in an interview on Science.org: at first, yes! But over time, he got used to seeing those images and lost that reflex. And you, how many times did you yawn while reading this article?

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