It was a typical doctor’s waiting room. An L-shaped arrangement of chairs. Just two of us in the waiting room and the receptionist behind the half-wall.
As I paged through a six month-old Sports Illustrated (not the swim-suit issue, damn it), I could hear the phone conversation the receptionist was having with a friend or relative. It seemed she was having problems with her sleep patterns and as she told the story she gave out a huge….awwwwww yawn, and said, “I’m so sleepy all day.”
The other waiting patient was flipping through her cell and immediately did a big silent yawn. I twisted my mouth and nose up and stifled my own yawn successfully. It left me very unfulfilled. I wanted and needed that damn yawn.
I know you’re entirely too busy to research yawning so I’ll do it for you the best I can. I just want to know WHY THE COPYCAT YAWNING?
A sleepy yawn is fine.
A copycat yawn really sucks. It wasn’t in the cards at all until you opened your big trap and then I was hopelessly drawn into my unplanned yawn. I’m glad you didn’t give me your cold or your Ebola, but your contagious yawn was uncalled for. WHY!
There is one yawn expert I uncovered. His name is Robert Provine, a neuroscientist who tells us that yawning is “ancient” and “autonomic.” It stems from early evolution, even fish do it, and is wired deep in our brainstem, so it’s even more basic than a reflex. Whoa!
We’re not yawning to take in oxygen, that theory is outdated. We are probably, I say probably, trying to regulate the temperature in our brain. We do have triggers…like boredom, sleepiness and temperature. Scientists have discovered that sixty eight degrees is our “thermal window” for yawning. When ambient temperature starts approaching our body temperature we yawn less. And when ambient temperature goes down near freezing we yawn less.
Scientists have found contagious yawning in humans, chimpanzees, baboons, bonobos, wolves, dogs and budgies. My friend says she can make her cat yawn, too.
So, do we all join in because a good yawn feels so good? No! Our copycat yawn does not happen on any conscious level. We can’t help it. When we are self-conscious of it, we control and stop it.
Studies have shown that seeing pictures or videos of yawning faces can provoke contagious yawning. What we might think of as the main component of a “yawn face”–a wide-open mouth–doesn’t even need to appear in the image for the trigger to work, “yawning eyes” can be enough to get us arching and gaping. If you yawn while reading about yawning, it’s not because you’re “picturing” a yawn. The response is more primal than that.
See what I mean? You’re doing it again.
It turns out there are many “possibilities.” Just what I thought, they don’t really know. BUT, they have figured all the possibilities might be true.
One theory is an empathetic response. Our brains have a “mirror-neuron” system (MNS). So that part of our brain feels empathy for the yawner and we join in.
HOWEVER, other parts of the brain light up also during contagious yawning. It seems our amygdala (the fight or flight warning area) lights up when images of yawning are shown. We yawn at times when we are nervous and we yawn plenty before a big sporting event. Interesting, huh? We seem to be preparing our brain for swift action in response to a threat. Again this part is thought to be an evolutionary shortcut.
Like contagious laughing, contagious yawning can be a bond to a group and could very well be a feeling of safeness.