Have you ever heard of the echo phenomenon? This is when people automatically repeat other people’s words or actions. An example of an echo phenomenon would be when you see someone yawning and you imitate them almost instantly. Why is it that it is contagious to yawn? Does any neural base explain this phenomenon?
The psychologist Robert Provine (1986) said the following: “Yawning may be one of the least understood forms of human behavior”. Now that we are some years ahead of time, can we solve this question through neuroscience? Is there only one explanation for it, or is there more than one? Let’s find out.
Why is yawning contagious?
According to a study by Romero et al. (2014) only humans, chimpanzees, dogs and wolves appear to have “infectious” yawns, although many animals yawn. Why is it that it is contagious to yawn? Let’s take a look at the case of humans, as well as what some of the most relevant explanations have to say.
Activation of motor area
A group of researchers from the University of Nottingham (England) conducted a study in 2017. It was published in Current Biology, in which they tried to find out the answer to this question about why it is contagious to yawn.
According to English researchers , this action is due to an automatic reflex in your brain. It is activated precisely in the area responsible for controlling motor functions.
Therefore, according to this study, the tendency to follow another person’s gap stems from the primary motor cortex of the brain. This area is responsible for performing movements through neuronal impulses.
What did the experiment consist of?
A sum of 36 volunteer adults was part of the study. They learned how to control their gap, and then they were asked to watch video clips of people yawning. In the end, all the gaps (including the suppressed gaps) were counted.
Through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) techniques, the researchers analyzed the possible relationship between the neural base at gaps and motor irritability.
The researchers found that it depends on the cortical irritability and the physiological inhibition of the person’s primary motor cortex, according to whether a person is likely to be “infected with gaps”.
That will explain why some people yawn more than others. It also explains why some people seem to copy other people’s gaps and others do not.
Can one suppress a gap?
Are we then almost pre-programmed to start yawning when we see another yawn, or can we control this reflex? According to the same English researchers , the ability to resist this infection is limited. Furthermore, they also concluded that the fact that one is trying to suppress one’s gaps can actually increase one’s need to yawn.
In fact, through electrical stimulation during the experiment, they were able to see how much the motor irritability increased the tendency to follow other people’s gaps. The truth is, we can not really control “infectious gaps” because we have an innate predisposition to do so.
Understanding the causes of certain disorders
This study may actually help researchers studying other disorders. They may be able to determine the causes of these disorders more precisely, which have increased the cortical irritability or reduced the physiological inhibition.
We are talking here about disorders such as dementia, autism, epilepsy or Tourette’s syndrome among others. In these disorders, patients cannot avoid certain echo phenomena (such as yawning), echolalia (the repetition of words or phrases uttered by another person) or echopraxia (automatic repetition of another person’s actions).
In this regard, the study leader, Georgina Jackson, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the Department of Mental Health in Nottingham, explains the following:
Furthermore , Jackson adds that it can help patients with Tourette’s syndrome by reducing motor irritability and thereby reducing their tics.
Other explanations for why it is contagious to yawn: Empathy, genetics and synchronization
Before the study, other researchers tried to answer this question in a different way. Many of them suggested that empathic messages were a possible explanation. By seeing a person yawn, we feel unproven empathy with them. We make the same gesture without being able to avoid it as if we were their reflection.
This theory has many followers. It assumes that the ability to interpret how others feel will make us put ourselves in their place or feel the same way – even in such “primary” actions as this. As a result, you will not be able to stop yourself from doing the same thing when you see another person yawning.
Some studies that try to explain why yawning is so contagious refer to the activation of certain brain circuits that are characteristic of empathy. These are the circuits that contain the famous mirror neurons. These neurons will act as an internal reflex on the movements we observe in other peoples.
Another possible explanation for this phenomenon has to do with communication and synchronization. In relation to this, researcher and professor of psychology, Matthew Campbell, states the following:
It is contagious to yawn to put the group in sync
This explanation assumes that there will be an imitating action and that copying the gap will put the group in sync. Campbell says we can see this action in our eating habits.
When it’s time to eat, everyone eats, and here we will consider the eating to be contagious. This may also be the case when we are tempted to copy other people’s movements and attitudes.
In short, we have here two primary explanations for this phenomenon. You can choose the one you think is the right one!