Why do people yawn when they see others doing it? Read to know more

Research shows that the human urge to yawn gets triggered off by the sight of others doing it and by primitive reflexes in the primary motor cortex.

The urge to yawn can be triggered off by the sight of others yawning Pixabay

If we are yawning, it might be because of feeling sleepy or tired. Or we might be just imitating someone else who is yawning. Researchers at the University of Nottingham published a research paper revealing the reason behind people yawning when someone else does so. As per the scientific study it's all about contagious yawning. This is an automatic trigger of primitive reflexes in the brain's primary motor cortex. That is the area of the head which can navigate a person's motor function.

A scientific study, titled 'A neural basis for contagious yawning', has been published in the academic journal, Current Biology. This is yet another step towards a study into the underlying biology of neuropsychiatric disorders, as well as an exploration of novel therapies.

The new findings show some interesting conclusions. Firstly, we find it difficult to stop yawning if someone else near us is doing it. In fact, the desire to yawn increases if we are told not to. Even if we try to stifle our yawns, it might affect how we do it but it won't change our inclination to do so. Still, scientists have found that our urge to yawn and the inclination for contagious yawning varies from person to person.

Stephen Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, in the School of Psychology, was head of the team for the multidisciplinary research. He explained: "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."

Contagious yawning is a common form of echophenomena, or the automatic imitation of another's words, also called echolalia; or actions also called echopraxia. The phenomenon is common not just among humans but even chimpanzees and dogs. Echophenomena is spotted among various clinical conditions that are related to increased cortical excitability of lowered physiological inhibitions, such as epilespsy, dementia, autism and Tourette syndrome.

While the neural basis for echophenomena is not known, the link with motor excitability has been studied by the Nottingham research group. The scientists used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), for which 36 adults were roped in. They were asked to view other living beings yawning, which made these volunteers either stifle their yawns or permit themselves to let themselves do it. As they were also videographed all through the experiment, the yawns, as well as repressed ones, were counted and recorded. Through electrical stimulation, they were also able to increase their urge.

Georgina Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology in the Institute of Mental Health, said: "This research has shown that the 'urge' is increased by trying to stop yourself. Using electrical stimulation we were able to increase excitability and in doing so increase the propensity for contagious yawning. In Tourettes if we could reduce the excitability we might reduce the tics and that's what we are working on."

Funded by ESRC doctoral training award to Beverley J Brown, the test is part of Nottingham's new Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). It has been leading research into mental health technology, hoping to use brain imaging techniques in order to get a grip on neuromodulation.

Professor Stephen Jackson added: "If we can understand how alterations in cortical excitability give rise to neural disorders, we can potentially reverse them. We are looking for potential non-drug, personalised treatments, using TMS that might be effective in modulating imbalances in the brain networks."