What happens when we get caught in that awkward, inevitable moment of extending our jaws, squinting our eyes, and taking in the air like we’ve never had it? Scientists believe that the reason we yawn is to cool down our brains, which consume 40 percent of our metabolic energy and can become very heated.
This is believed to be a reason we feel tired, and that little gasp for air is our way of sending blood flow through our jaws, and oxygen straight up to our brain for a cool down. Makes sense, sure, but what’s the deal with catching the uncontrollable urge to yawn when we see someone else doing it?
They Really Are Contagious, but Why?
While scientists have not been able to pinpoint exactly why it happens, there is some evidence that can support that it’s not voluntary.
The contagious manner of a yawn comes from the tendency to imitate and isn’t reserved for humans only. Other primates and mammals are subject to yawn catching, and even humans and animals can exchange the unsolicited imitation. It’s referred to as an echo phenomenon.
The Science Behind Yawning
A study examining this tendency showed something quite compelling: that yawns are not only contagious, but in fact, trying not to yawn increases your need to do so. A full yawn will provide the brain with the temperature regulation that is triggered by the urge, but a stifled yawn will only have you yawning more. One study showed that cooling the brain via icepack could reduce yawning.
Interestingly, yawning has been linked to neurological disorders in both humans and animals, and an excessive amount of yawning can indicate a possible presence of such complications.
This isn’t to say that if you should be concerned if you’re yawning like crazy at your desk, you might want to check who around you has been yawning instead.