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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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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What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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