By Becky Fletcher
Have you ever clocked someone yawning in the office and soon followed suit? How about ‘catching’ a yawn on public transport? Well, now a new study from the University of Nottingham has revealed the part of our brain that triggers the yawning response.
According the research, it’s the part of the brain that deals with motor function – the primary motor cortex, which also plays a part in conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome.
Stephen Jackson, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and lead author, told Medical News Today why he thinks yawning is contagious:
“”[…] there are many theories for why we yawn (e.g., lack of oxygen, to cool the brain, because we are tired, etc., etc.) but the evidence for these is lacking. The popular theory for contagious yawning is that it is linked with empathy for others, mimicry, and social bonding. Again the evidence for this is weak. I still think that much more research is required to understand the function and biology of yawning.
“…when I teach about yawning, I can get most of the class yawning. (Note, this doesn’t happen for my other lectures).”
For the study, the researchers monitored 36 participants while they watched other people yawning. Some were told to stifle the urge. The urge was due to the “excitability” of the volunteer’s primary motor cortex. Using a non-invasive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) procedure it was also possible to increase this excitability and, as a result, more yawning.
Interestingly, the scientists believe that knowing about yawns and this part of the brain may offer some insight in to other disorders and unrelated conditions, such as echophenomena (also known as echo phenomenon that cause automatic imitations that occur without awareness), which is seen in Tourettes, epilepsy and autism.
Prof. Jackson adds:
“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’s syndrome.”
He added the team are looking for potential non-drug, personalised treatments.
The research was published in the journal Current Biology.