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Why Is Yawning Contagious?

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What is yawning? And why do we do so much of it? Neuroscientist and yawn expert Robert Provine says it's "ancient and autonomic." It stems from early evolution and is common to many creatures—even fish do it. It's autonomic in the sense that it roots in the brainstem, way down in the basement level of the brain, where certain responses are so built-in they don't even qualify as reflexes.

Yawning has many triggers, including boredom, sleepiness, and temperature. A 2014 study suggested that there's a "thermal window" (at around 68°F) for human yawning; as ambient temperature approaches body temperature or goes down near freezing, we yawn less. According to the paper, we may yawn to regulate the temperature of our brains. This isn't the same as saying we yawn to take in extra oxygen, as evidence to date says we don't. It means that yawning might act to draw brain-soothing ambient air in through the nose and mouth.

COPYCAT YAWNING?

Over the years, scientists have observed "contagious yawning" in chimpanzees, humans, baboons, bonobos, wolves, and, to a certain extent, dogs. Yawning feels good, so why not join in when someone else yawns? Well, you're not really "joining in," because you aren't copying the yawn on any conscious level. It happens because you just can't help it. If you become self-conscious about a yawn, it stops.

While many past studies have documented the phenomenon, a more recent study, published in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, contends that yawns may not be contagious after all—or at least that we have not yet proven it. Experimental psychologist Rohan Kapitány of the University of Oxford conducted a review of the scientific literature on contagious yawns and found very little conclusive evidence to back up our long-held assumption that yawns are contagious.

"The belief that yawns are contagious seems self-evident," Kapitány told PsyPost, "but there are some very basic reasons for why we might be mistaken in this. If we fail to dissect that which we think we know, we might end up with conclusions that do not reflect reality. In this instance, the literature hasn't questioned the basic features of contagious yawning, and ended up with a wide range of unstandardized methodologies and conclusions."

Still, because Kapitány's study was small and extremely limited, he and his fellow authors urge other scientists to challenge their findings with experiments of their own.

"I may be wrong!" Kapitány said. "Maybe yawns are contagious!" Kapitány says he'd like to see "more robust" attempts to falsify the claim that yawns are contagious rather than "simply demonstrating it over and over [in] slightly different contexts with richer and richer explanations."

WHO DOESN'T CATCH YAWNS?

Some people with autism or schizophrenia don't exhibit a yawn-contagion response. The same is true of children under the age of four years. This has led to a variety of theories about yawning's relationship to empathy and the brain's mirror-neuron system (MNS). The idea here is that MNS deficits might lead to missing hidden empathetic cues that trigger contagious yawning. The MNS seems to be involved in the process to some extent. fMRI scans on a range of people have shown that other parts of the brain also "light up" in response to images of yawning, perhaps more so than the areas normally associated with empathy.

YAWN AND RUN

Parts of the amygdala—a brain area associated with fear and heightened attention—light up in response to images of yawning. We sometimes yawn when we're nervous, such as before a sporting performance.

So, perhaps we yawn at those times to prepare our brains for "fight or flight." Maybe contagious yawning is a smart evolutionary shortcut for readying the brains of an entire group of hominins for swift action in response to a threat. (If that's the case, then some older members would have been left behind, because older people are a little less susceptible to yawn contagion.) We are social mammals; this kind of evolutionary refinement of an existing trait (general purpose yawning becoming contagious yawning) might have helped groups to survive.

Or maybe it's a lot less deep than that. Laughing also feels good, and it too can be contagious. Like laughter, contagious yawning might help groups to bond—by signaling unselfconscious, relaxed sleepiness. Perhaps it has more to do with feeling safe than with feeling threatened.

STRAGGLERS AND FAKES

Contagious yawning is still a bit of a scientific mystery. We love to speculate about it and try to home in on the reason for it. But why should an evolutionary trait have one specific reason behind it? Often, traits survive because they cover a number of bases. Other times, they're simply evolutionary stragglers whose original purpose has faded out, but because they don't work against a creature's survival, there's no pressure to get rid of them.

One modern adaptation of yawning is not so contagious—fake yawning. You might do this as a less-than-subtle means of signaling that a conversation has dragged on too long. Why not engage in a scientific experiment next time you're in a meeting with your boss? Lean back in your chair and yawn, then note down whether he or she yawns right back at you. Maybe there's a scientific discovery in there … but probably no pay raise.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Where Did the Myth That Radiation Glows Green Come From?
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by C Stuart Hardwick

Probably from radium, which was widely used in self-luminous paint starting in 1908. When mixed with phosphorescent copper-doped zinc sulfide, radium emits a characteristic green glow:


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The use of radioluminescent paint was mostly phased out by the mid-1960s. Today, in applications where it is warranted (like spacecraft instrument dials and certain types of sensors, for example), the radiation source is tritium (radioactive hydrogen) or an isotope of promethium, either of which has a vastly shorter half life than radium.

In most consumer products, though, radioluminescence has been replaced by photoluminescence, phosphors that emit light of one frequency after absorbing photons of a difference frequency. Glow-in-the-dark items that recharge to full brightness after brief exposure to sunlight or a fluorescent light only to dim again over a couple of hours are photoluminescent, and contain no radiation.

An aside on aging radium: By now, most radium paint manufactured early in the 20th century has lost most of its glow, but it’s still radioactive. The isotope of radium used has a half life of 1200 years, but the chemical phosphor that makes it glow has broken down from the constant radiation—so if you have luminescent antiques that barely glow, you might want to have them tested with a Geiger counter and take appropriate precautions. The radiation emitted is completely harmless as long as you don’t ingest or inhale the radium—in which case it becomes a serious cancer risk. So as the tell-tale glow continues to fade, how will you prevent your ancient watch dial or whatever from deteriorating and contaminating your great, great grandchildren’s home, or ending up in a landfill and in the local water supply?

Even without the phosphor, pure radium emits enough alpha particles to excite nitrogen in the air, causing it to glow. The color isn’t green, through, but a pale blue similar to that of an electric arc.


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This glow (though not the color) entered the public consciousness through this early illustration of its appearance in Marie Curie’s lab, and became confused with the green glow of radium paints.

The myth is likely kept alive by the phenomenon of Cherenkov glow, which arises when a charged particle (such as an electron or proton) from submerged sources exceeds the local speed of light through the surrounding water.

So in reality, some radionuclides do glow (notably radium and actinium), but not as brightly or in the color people think. Plutonium doesn’t, no matter what Homer Simpson thinks, unless it’s Pu-238—which has such a short half life, it heats itself red hot.


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This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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How Are Royal Babies Named?
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After much anticipation, England's royal family has finally received a tiny new addition. The birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's second son was confirmed by Kensington Palace on April 23, but the name of the royal newborn has yet to be announced. For the heir to the British throne and his wife, choosing a name for their third child—who is already fifth in line to the throne—likely won't be as easy as flipping through a baby name book; it's tradition for royals to select names that honor important figures from British history.

According to ABC WJLA, selecting three or four names is typical when naming a royal baby. Will and Kate followed this unwritten rule when naming their first child, George Alexander Louis, and their second, Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. Each name is an opportunity to pay homage to a different British royal who came before them. Some royal monikers have less savory connotations (Prince Harry's given name, Henry, is reminiscent of a certain wife-beheading monarch), but typically royal babies are named for people who held a significant and honorable spot in the family tree.

Because there's a limited pool of honorable monarchs from which to choose, placing bets on the royal baby name as the due date approaches has become a popular British pastime. One name that keeps cropping up this time around is James; the original King James ruled in the early 17th century, and it has been 330 years since a monarch named James wore the crown.

If the royal family does go with James for the first name of their youngest son, that still leaves at least a couple of slots to be filled. So far, the couple has stuck with three names each for their children, but there doesn't seem to be a limit; Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne to George VI in 1936, shouldered the full name of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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