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Truth or Myth: Is Yawning Really Contagious And Why?

Truth or Myth: Is Yawning Really Contagious And Why?

It is 3pm. You’re in the meeting room, trying to listen to the report your colleague is presenting. All of a sudden, you feel an overwhelming urge to yawn. You try your very best to hold it in, but, oops. Unsightly. Then everyone else just started to yawn as well, one after one… We can all relate to this.

It’s a myth that we yawn to compete with others to breathe in more oxygen is a myth.

So you think you know why this happens:

I’m tired and my brain needs oxygen! There are so many people, there must not be enough oxygen for everyone in the room. And when someone yawn, they breathe in the limited oxygen in the room, so it’s my reflex to take more oxygen back by yawning…

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But no, we don’t yawn because we are oxygen-starved.

In fact, scientists have found that breathing in more oxygen doesn’t actually reduce yawning.[1] This shows that something else is making you yawn.

Something in our brain actually gets triggered when we see others yawn.

While the answer to why we yawn is yet to be found, scientists and psychologists have come up with various theories to explain contagious yawning among human beings. Here are a few possibilities:

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It’s like a reflex action when we yawn after seeing others do so.

Neuroscience suggests that the contagion may be a kind of fixed action pattern.[2]

When we see the first person yawn, our body automatically behaves in the same way. It’s like a reflex, which is why we can’t help but open our mouth wide. It is caused by an unconscious activity of our brain cells called the chameleon effect. What happens is that our brain makes us do what we see others doing.

This explains why we just can’t control it. If someone yawns, even when we’re not tired, we suddenly feel like we need to yawn. It’s our brain telling us that we’ve just seen someone yawn. Weird.

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It can be a subconscious way to communicate with each other.

Psychologists think that contagious yawning may be due to an effect called emotional contagion.[3] This suggests that yawning is a “primal instinct” that helps us bond as a community.

An experiment has found evidence to support that contagious yawning can be a sign of empathy too.[4]

Autistic children and very young children do not respond to contagious yawning, probably because they don’t have the ability to feel emotional empathy. On the other hand, 40%-60% of healthy grown-ups will yawn after seeing others do it.

It is also possible that contagious yawning is a kind of herding behavior.[5] When we yawn, we are communicating to a group that we’re sleepy, and others just can’t help doing so to say that they agree.

Despite all the possibilities, there’s no conclusion about contagious yawning yet.

All of the above theories are only suggestions. Scientists still haven’t reached a conclusion about contagious yawning yet. For example, we still can’t explain why it doesn’t happen every time someone yawns, or why some of us yawn but don’t respond to the contagion.[6] More research on these questions is needed.

Meanwhile, you can stop feeling guilty about that time you started a yawning contagion. It’s probably happened to all of us!

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Reference

More by this author

Wen Shan

Proud Philosophy grad. Based in HK.

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Last Updated on June 6, 2019

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

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    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.

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        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

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          Summation

          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

          Reference

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