Researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom have found that our ability to resist yawning when someone else near us yawns is limited.
Yawns are contagious, but why? But their efforts to look less exhausted had clearly failed, because they yawned just as many times as under normal conditions.
The participants were videoed throughout, and their yawns and stifled yawns were counted. Half were instructed to resist yawning, and half were told they could yawn at will. That in turn boosted people's propensity for contagious yawning.
The researchers showed 36 adults video clips of people yawning, and then instructed them to alternate between trying to resist their own yawns, and yawning as much as they liked.
The reason that it's hard to stifle a yawn - especially when someone nearby is doing it and you're trying hard not to - appears to reside in the area of the brain that's responsible for motor function, a new study from England finds. All the while, the researchers used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to poke targeted areas of their brains into action, in an attempt to gauge which areas make yawns contagious.
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Contagious yawning is triggered involuntarily when we observe another person yawn - it is a common form of Echophenomena -the automatic imitation of another's words (echolalia) or actions (echopraxia). They focused on the motor cortex, since it's involved in planning and movement. In another experiment, the participants were given the same instructions; however, the researchers also applied electrical currents to the people's scalps, which were meant to stimulate the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls yawning.
Stephen Jackson, the lead author and a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology said that these findings might be helpful in the further understanding of the link between motor excitability and the incidence of echophenomena in a wide range of clinical conditions associated with augmented cortical excitability and reduced physiological inhibition like dementia, epilepsy, autism, and Tourette syndrome. First, if someone specifically tells you not to yawn, it's ever harder to avoid yawning. The participants were told to either try to stop themselves from yawning or just let it happen.
The full paper "A neural basis for contagious yawning" is can be read on the University of Nottingham's website. "We are looking for potential non-drug, personalised treatments, using TMS that might be affective in modulating inbalances in the brain networks".
Regardless of the cause, it's probably a safe bet that you're yawning right now.