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.

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What Would Happen If a Plane Flew Too High?

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Tom Farrier:

People have done this, and they have died doing it. For example, in October 2004, the crew of Pinnacle Airlines 3701 [PDF]  was taking their aircraft from one airport to another without passengers—a so-called "repositioning" flight.

They were supposed to fly at 33,000 feet, but instead requested and climbed to 41,000 feet, which was the maximum altitude at which the aircraft was supposed to be able to be flown. Both engines failed, the crew couldn't get them restarted, and the aircraft crashed and was destroyed.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the probable causes of this accident were: (1) the pilots’ unprofessional behavior, deviation from standard operating procedures, and poor airmanship, which resulted in an in-flight emergency from which they were unable to recover, in part because of the pilots’ inadequate training; (2) the pilots’ failure to prepare for an emergency landing in a timely manner, including communicating with air traffic controllers immediately after the emergency about the loss of both engines and the availability of landing sites; and (3) the pilots’ improper management of the double engine failure checklist, which allowed the engine cores to stop rotating and resulted in the core lock engine condition.

Contributing to this accident were: (1) the core lock engine condition, which prevented at least one engine from being restarted, and (2) the airplane flight manuals that did not communicate to pilots the importance of maintaining a minimum airspeed to keep the engine cores rotating.

Accidents also happen when the "density altitude"—a combination of the temperature and atmospheric pressure at a given location—is too high. At high altitude on a hot day, some types of aircraft simply can't climb. They might get off the ground after attempting a takeoff, but then they can't gain altitude and they crash because they run out of room in front of them or because they try to turn back to the airport and stall the aircraft in doing so. An example of this scenario is described in WPR12LA283.

There's a helicopter version of this problem as well. Helicopter crews calculate the "power available" at a given pressure altitude and temperature, and then compare that to the "power required" under those same conditions. The latter are different for hovering "in ground effect" (IGE, with the benefit of a level surface against which their rotor system can push) and "out of ground effect" (OGE, where the rotor system supports the full weight of the aircraft).

It's kind of unnerving to take off from, say, a helipad on top of a building and go from hovering in ground effect and moving forward to suddenly find yourself in an OGE situation, not having enough power to keep hovering as you slide out over the edge of the roof. This is why helicopter pilots always will establish a positive rate of climb from such environments as quickly as possible—when you get moving forward at around 15 to 20 knots, the movement of air through the rotor system provides some extra ("translational") lift.

It also feels ugly to drop below that translational lift airspeed too high above the surface and abruptly be in a power deficit situation—maybe you have IGE power, but you don't have OGE power. In such cases, you may not have enough power to cushion your landing as you don't so much fly as plummet. (Any Monty Python fans?)

Finally, for some insight into the pure aerodynamics at play when airplanes fly too high, I'd recommend reading the responses to "What happens to aircraft that depart controlled flight at the coffin corner?"

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

Why Are Some Men's Beards a Different Color Than Their Hair?

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Throughout civilization, beards have acted as a silent communicator. For some, it's a symbol of virility and power. For others, being hirsute is mandated by religion, marital status, or both. (Amish single men are clean-shaven; husbands are not.) Seeing an unkempt, scraggly beard could be an indication of a person's economic status or their lack of vanity. One man, Hans Langseth, sprouted a 17-foot-long chin warmer for the unique identity it afforded him. (He kept it neatly rolled over a corn cob when he wasn't busy showing it off.)

Langseth's whiskers, which wound up in the Smithsonian, present a curious timeline of his life. The furthest end of the beard was a vibrant brown, grown out when he was younger. The ends closer to his face—and to the end of his life in 1927—were yellowed.

While age can certainly influence hair and beard color, it doesn't explain why a younger man can sport a decidedly different beard tone than what's on the rest of his head. Other follicular forces are at work.

By default, scalp hair is white. It gets its color from melanin, turning it everything from jet black to dirty blonde. Pheomelanin infuses hair with red and yellow pigmentation; eumelanin influences brown and black. Like shades of paint, the two can mix within the same hair shaft. (Melanin production decreases as we age, which is why hairs start to appear gray.) But not all follicles get the same dose in the same combination. While you might sport a light brown top, your beard could be predominantly dark brown, or sport patches of lighter hairs in spots. Eyebrow hair will probably appear darker because those follicles tend to produce more eumelanin.

If you're wondering why these two-toned heads often have a red beard but not red hair, there's an answer for that, too. While all hair color is genetic, one gene in particular, MC1R, is responsible for a red hue. If you inherit a mutated version of the gene from both parents, you're likely to have red hair from head to toe. (Hopefully not too much toe hair.) But if you inherit MC1R from just one parent, it might only affect a portion of your follicles. If that swatch of color annoys you for whatever reason? There’s always beard dye.

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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