The Nature of Contagious Yawning

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Yawning in general

Yawning is a common act in all humans from birth and is one of the best examples of a fixed action pattern; once a yawn begins it becomes unstoppable. It also occurs in the same way each time. Several theories have been proposed to explain its existence in everyday life. There has been no definitive way of explaining why yawning occurs. Communication, physiology and arousal will be discussed. Firstly, communication is proposed as a primary reason for yawning, by Guggisberg, Mathis, Herrmann & Hess (2007). They attribute yawning to vigilance and suggest that unconscious communication occurs to synchronise a group and show vigilance. Baenninger (1987) also suggest that yawning helps to maintain attention levels and it may have evolved to promote vigilance and further suggest that it could communicate drowsiness or illness to a group. Another theory suggests a physiological link, whereby the yawn maintains mental efficiency by regulating the brain temperature through a cooling mechanism (Palagi, Leone, Mancici & Ferarri, 2009). However, a study by Gallup & Gallup jr. (2008) has shown inconclusive results for this theory. Another theory suggests that yawning is due to arousal. Matikainen and Elo (2007) report that yawning increases arousal and helps the individual to waken up. They suggest that it is due to connections between the mouth and the neck which when stretched stimulates the carotid body responsible for oxygen homeostasis. However, research by Guiggisberg et al (2007) found opposing research and their results showed that arousal levels decreased after yawns. It is clear that further research needs to be conducted to find the causes of yawns, and it has been shown that there is possibly more than one answer for this problem. However conclusive evidence for any theory is yet to be found.

Contagious yawning

Seeing, hearing or even thinking about another person yawning can trigger a yawn, contagious yawns occur in 40-60% of human adults but its primary reason and function is still unknown. Some advancement nevertheless, has been made to explain its cause. The advance in research into contagious yawning has come from the discovery of mirror neurons (Arnott, Singhal & Goodale, 2009). These are cells which are located in the posterior inferior frontal gyrus (pIGF) and are active when an individual sees another perform and action. They activate in the same was as they do when an individual performs the task themselves. It is proposed that mirror neurons enable individuals to understand others experiences and emotional states. This research therefore suggests that seeing or hearing a yawn activates this area of the brain and so initiates a yawning action. It has also been proposed that as mirror neurons help to understand emotional states, it is closely linked with empathy. This means that contagious yawning could be linked to empathy too.

Contagious yawning and empathy

This study has been conducted to assess the relationship between contagious yawning and empathy. Previous research highlights a strong relationship. Arnott et al (2009) investigated empathy and auditory contagious yawning and their results show a positive correlation between the two with more yawns elicited by those who scored higher on the empathy scale given. The relationship was modest but still significant below .05. Also Periol & Monaca (2006) point out that contagious yawning doesn’t occur in species that cant recognise themselves in the mirror, nor can infants under two, suggesting that sense of self is required which is a key element to understanding others. Other research has shown that those with autistic spectrum disorder, and schizophrenia are unable to yawn contagiously as much as controls and that this is due to lack of empathy (Haker & Rossler, 2008). The premise of this study is to add to current research by expanding on Arnott et al’s research, by using...
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