Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Close friends together yawn more frequently

It is a common sight that people yawn in response to others. Why this behaviour occurs is unknown, but a recent study at the University of Pisa has shown that yawning is more contagious among close friends. That is what they conclude after a year-long study, in which they tracked different people in different relationships. While this does not tell us what the actual function is of yawning, its social aspect is certainly intriguing.

Yawning in close company
For their experiments, the scientists followed over 400 couples in different situations. In their analysis, they aimed to discover which factors could be correlated to contagiousness of yawning. They found that the social context of the people being analysed is the strongest factor: it had the biggest impact on presence and frequency of a contagious yawn. That basically means, the closer you are to a person, the more you are affected by his or her yawn. None of the other investigated factors, such as age, race, environment, etc, proved to be statistically significant.

Neurological basis
Perhaps it is not surprising that social status is a factor for yawning contagiousness. Earlier, scientists have shown that observing a yawn activates brain areas that are involved with processing emotion, indicating a possible correlation with social relationship. While we often see a yawn as a sign of boredom, the underlying neurology hints it might actually be a sign of empathy.

Yawning and evolution
It is hypothesized that yawning evolved over 200 million years ago, long before man was around. Apparently, fish that swam the earth around that time had already developed yawning. Present day animals, in addition to humans, are also able to yawn. It is hypothesized that animals with higher cognitive abilities are also affected by contagious yawning.

What the exact function is of yawning is unknown. One hypothesis describes it as a social feature, which seems to be backed up by the present study. However, a different study has shown that yawning is correlated with season and temperature. These scientists hypothesize that it has a function in cooling the brain, but this has not been proven.
Cats yawn too.

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