We’ve had it all this year; bountiful banter, lots of laughter and oodles of tomfoolery. Thankfully, we have avoided any spillage of blood, sweat or tears.

But, as we approach the end of our journey, I am seeing a lot of tired faces. A chorus of yawns oft sweeps through the computer lab, which got me thinking… Why is it that yawning is contagious?

I put that very question to my fellow MECB colleagues and well, to be honest, it was a conundrum which nobody could answer, at least in any convincing manner.

So, I have looked into the matter, trawled through the web, compiled and summarized the most convincing theories, and here is what I’ve come back with; while the dictionary tells us that yawning is caused by being fatigued, drowsy or bored, scientists are discovering that there is more to yawning than what most people think. It turns out that rather than being a precursor to sleep, having a good auld yawn is actually designed to keep us awake.

Seeing, hearing or even reading about yawning, can induce a chain reaction of yawns. If you haven’t yawned yet, I suggest you may be a medical aberration or perhaps you should immediately consult your Doctor. Here are some theories I have found, which seek to explain this mysterious epidemic of contagious yawning:

The Physiological Theory

Our bodies induce yawning to draw in more oxygen or remove a build-up of carbon dioxide. This theory helps explain why we yawn in groups. Larger groups produce more carbon dioxide, which means our bodies would act to draw in more oxygen and get rid of the excess carbon dioxide. However, if our bodies make us yawn to drawn in needed oxygen, wouldn’t we yawn during exercise? Robert Provine, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a “leading expert on yawning,” has tested this theory. Giving people additional oxygen didn’t decrease yawning and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide in a subject’s environment also didn’t prevent yawning.

The Evolution Theory

Some think that yawning is something that began with our ancestors, who used yawning to show their teeth and intimidate others. An offshoot of this theory is the idea that yawning developed from early man as a signal for us to change activities.

The Brain Cooling Theory

The brain cooling theory says that when we contagiously yawn we are participating in an ancient, hardwired ritual that evolved to help groups stay alert and detect danger.

It’s not copying another person’s sleepiness, say scientists at the University of Albany in New York, who are behind the latest research.

“We think contagious yawning is triggered by empathic mechanisms which function to maintain group vigilance,” says Dr Gordon Gallup, a leading researcher at the university.

The Boredom Theory

In the dictionary, yawning is said to be caused by boredom, fatigue or drowsiness. Although we do tend to yawn when bored or tired, this theory doesn’t explain why Olympic athletes yawn right before they compete in their event. It’s doubtful that they are bored with the world watching them. But there are other theories. It’s been suggested contagious yawning could be a result of an unconscious herding behavior – a subtle way to communicate to those around us, similar to when flocks of birds take flight at the same time.

Herding behaviour

The belief is further supported by the observation of Robert Provine that paratroopers report yawning before jumping.

But there are other theories. It’s been suggested contagious yawning could be a result of an unconscious herding behaviour – a subtle way to communicate to those around us, similar to when flocks of birds take flight at the same time.

Another theory suggests contagious yawning might have helped early humans communicate their alertness levels and co-ordinate sleeping times.

Basically, if one decided it was time to sleep they would tell the others by yawning and they would do it in return to show they agreed.

Interesting stuff… Have I provoked a yawn out of you yet?

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