Our ability to resist when we witness somebody else yawn is limited, and our urge to yawn actually intensifies if we are instructed to refrain from doing so, the researchers found.
But, no matter how hard we try to stifle a yawn, it might change how we yawn but it won't alter our propensity to yawn.
In search of answers, University of Nottingham's Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology, Stephen Jackson, led a research effort peering into the human brain to see just what makes yawning so contagious.
"This research has shown that the "urge" is increased by trying to stop yourself". Yawning is also extremely contagious.
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). "In Tourettes if we could reduce the excitability we might reduce the ticks and that's what we are working on". They examined 36 adults as they looked at video clips of people yawning. Using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers measured the participants' brain activity during the experiments.
The participants were videoed throughout, and their yawns and stifled yawns were counted.
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By quantifying motor cortical excitability and physiological inhibition for each participant, the team was able to predict each participant's propensity for contagious yawning.
Contagious yawning isn't unique to humans, either.
The work with electrical stimulation suggests that the brain's primary motor cortex plays a role in contagious yawning, the researchers said.
"We are looking for potential non-drug, personalised treatments, using TMS that might be effective in modulating imbalances in the brain networks".
"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". So the next time you feel an urge to yawn, it's easier to just let it happen. In addition, the intensity of each participant's perceived urge to yawn was continuously recorded. The researchers also found that people differ in their vulnerability to yawns.
The full paper "A neural basis for contagious yawning" is can be read on the University of Nottingham's website.
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