The Yawning Disease

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Its 1am and you’re in the computer lab. It’s the last week of  the semester and you’ve been training for the semester’s biggest competition…. That is pulling an all-nighter three days in a row. It’s day two. At this point in time, you’re feeling good. You’ve taken a three hour nap and you’ve paced yourself. You are halfway through your english paper and all you have to do is complete your online math quiz and rehearse your speech. You aren’t tired….THEN…… the shabby kid sitting next to you (who I might add, looks like he hasn’t showered in days) YAWNS….. & then you yawn too… Are you tired? No… you’ve just taken a three hour nap. You’ve been preparing yourself for the all nighter challenge for two weeks….Are you falling asleep? No. You slap your face a few times to make sure this isn’t some freaky illusion… You are still up and awake…So why did you yawn? Sadly, you caught the yawning disease.

Have you ever been in the presence of someone who has yawned. After they yawned, have you ever found yourself yawning shortly after as well? This has happened to me on multiple occasions. I usually yawn when I am hungry or tired, but when someone I am with yawns, I yawn as well, even when I am neither sleepy or craving food. So is yawning contagious? If it is, WHY is it contagious? This continues to be one of science’s burning questions.

According to a study done by the Finnish government, yawning after we witness someone else yawn is an unconscious behavior. As part of the study, volunteers looked at videos of others yawning or moving their mouths. After the volunteers viewed these videos, they were asked whether or not they were tempted to yawn more.

While viewing these videos, the conductors of the study analyzed the Mirror-Neutron System using Magnetic Resonance Imaging. THE Mirror-Neuron System is associated with learning and the article notes: 

Mirror neurons typically become active when a person consciously imitates an action of someone

The study however found that the mirror neurons played no active role in contagious yawning. The cells displayed no extra activity during contagious yawning compared to regular facial movements, or non-contagious facial movements. These findings lead the conductors of the study to believe that contagious yawning does not rely on brain mechanisms. With a conclusion like this, in our studies we could say that we yawn when we see others yawn due to chance, even though this may seem a little unrealistic to us because contagious yawning happens to almost everyone. 

What researchers have suggested is that yawning is related to communication. According to NewsDiscovery ( http://news.discovery.com/human/yawning-social-behavior.html ), yawning may be able to help doctors diagnose problems in childhood development. The act of yawning is believed to be fully rooted in children at the age of four. Molly Helt conducted a study among autistic children and “healthy” children (as the article refers to them).

From our studies, we have learned that autism is a developmental disorder, typically diagnosed around 18-24 months of age that makes it nearly impossible, if not fully impossible for children to effectively communicate with others. Helt’s study found:

Given four opportunities to catch a yawn, the researchers report today in the journal Child Development, none of the healthy one-year-olds did. Only one of the two-year-olds yawned back, and two of the three-year-olds caught a yawn.

 

There was a dramatic leap in the group go four-year-olds. where yawning spread to 9 out of 20 kids. That rate held steady for the older groups…

 

In the second part of the study, Helt and colleagues found that contagious yawning happened half as often in kids with a mild versions of autism. Kids with the most severe diagnoses never caught yawns.

Researchers have began to associate yawning with social bonding, which goes hand in hand with the idea that autistic children can not actively communicate with those around them. 

I think the idea of yawning being contagious may relate to us acknowledging the presence of those around us. Neuroimage paper even went as far to say that “Such synchronization could be essential for species survival and works without action understanding, like when a flock of birds rises to the air as soon as the first bird does so- supposably as it notices a predator.”

In regards to a relation between brain mechanisms, researchers have not been able to find a definite explanation as to why we yawn after we witness others yawn. What researchers have been able to conclude however is that yawning may be used to explain a series of developmental issues. 

Do you think these findings are realistic?

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