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.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

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iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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