Featured Image for Techly Explains: Why do we yawn, and why is it contagious?

Techly Explains: Why do we yawn, and why is it contagious?

Who are we? Where are we going? Why are we here? Why the hell can you not get through this yawn compilation without immediately doing your best MGM lion impression?

The unshakeable need to yawn as soon as you see someone else do it, or hear someone else, or hear the word, or think about it, is one of the weirder human reflexes, so let’s have a look at what exactly is going on here.

Why do we yawn?

Good question, hypothetical reader! You are also not even close to the first person to ask, in fact according the US Library of Congress the problem has been tickling us at least since Hippocrates – who lived around two and a half thousand years ago – suggested that it was “a way to remove bad air from the lungs” at the onset of a fever.

Moving forwards just a touch, Robert Provine, author of Curious Behaviour; Yawning, Laughing, Hiccuping, and Beyond has been searching for answers since the late 1980s according to the venerable B bloody BC.

Unfortunately, Provine hasn’t come across anything so straight forward as basic, universal definition, but a lot of the ideas point towards cooling the brain, helping to increase focus and alertness, as proved by research that showed that the urge to yawn was reduced in people who held a cold compress to their head.

Why is the yawn contagious?

Well, according to the Smithsonian magazine it comes down to empathy, the attempt to understand the emotions of others by stirring up a similar reaction in ourselves, so says psychology professor Steven Platek:

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, he found that areas of the brain activated during contagious yawning, the posterior cingulate and precuneus, are involved in processing our own and others’ emotions.
“My capacity to put myself in your shoes and understand your situation is a predictor for my susceptibility to contagiously yawn,” [Platek] says.

So there we have it, the yawn is an instinctive reaction to cool down our hot n’ steamy brains, and the uncontrollable urge to do the same when you see, hear or read about one comes down to the very human need to better understand others.

Awww, nice isn’t it?

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