Nudge: how science is being used to influence our behaviour

Do you ever feel you are being influenced by things beyond your control? Well you’re not alone. In 2009 the UK government put together a special unit (the Behavioural Insights Team AKA the Nudge Unit), dedicated to using insights from behavioural economics and psychology to influence our behaviour.

Although the Nudge Unit may sound like something from a bleak dystopian future, where our every action is monitored and controlled, it’s best not to judge the idea too hastily. So, let’s take a minute to get acquainted with the ‘nudge’…

The idea behind the nudge stems from a simple fact about human behaviour: ‘no matter how smart a person is, many of the basic choices they make on a day-to-day basis will be purely impulsive with little or no logical basis‘. This may sound unusual, but if you think about it, it actually makes sense. Could you imagine how hard life would be if every mundane daily decision required deep contemplation? You’d probably never even make it out of bed in the morning!

Scientists believe that our brains accomplish tasks by relying on two different systems or modes of thinking. System-one is a bit of an air head; it’s fast, automatic and emotional. Whilst system-two is like your inner professor; slow, ruminating and logical. It’s no secret that when it comes to important decisions, system-two is your best bet. But, we don’t always have the time or resources to engage this system, meaning that many of our everyday mental decisions are actually made ‘on the fly’ by system-one. To test this hypothesis, try answering the following question:

Baseball bat

A bat and ball cost £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Can you hear system-one shouting out the answer ’10p’? This answer may instinctively feel correct, but with a bit of extra thought it’s easy to come to the correct answer of ‘5p’. For more examples of the system-one/system-two divide see the video below:


Yes, poor impulsive system-one has many flaws. It is heavily swayed by social pressure, easily tricked, and has a tendency to favour short-term pleasure over long-term success; and with these flaws comes a certain level of predictability. It is this predictability that is now being utilised by the government’s Nudge unit to influence our behaviour.

In the 2008 book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, behavioural scientists from the University of Chicago laid out guidelines on how to apply behavioural nudges to policy. Now, six years on, concepts from this work are being used across the world to influence everything from tax fraud to antisocial bathroom habits.

Here are a couple of examples:

Schiphol flies:

AuthoFly urinalrities at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam were at a loss over excessive cleaning bills in their male toilets – where patrons seemed to hit everything but the urinal. However, economist Aad Kieboom had a solution. Rather than posting signs in the room asking patrons to improve their aim, he suggested that airport authorities etched a small picture of a fly into each urinal. This unusual solution worked by giving men something to aim at and reportedly reduced the airport’s lavatory cleaning bill by 80%. This is also arguably the most celebrated example of a nudge (a strategy for changing human behaviour based on an understanding of what real people are like).

Manchester tax dodgers:

In a recent document the UK’s Nudge unit discuss how the application of behavioural insights can be used to reduce fraud, error and debt. Indeed, even our own fair city has begun to participate in nudge politics. In 2011, Manchester residents claiming single person discount on their council tax were randomly sent one of three different letters, asking them to fill out a form to renew their claim. The first form was a standard document commonly used by the council, the other two however used nudges in an attempt to encourage honesty. These nudges were pretty simple, including simplified language, clear messages and a reminder that providing false information is an act of fraud. Amazingly, the study suggests that simply re-wording these forms did indeed lead to a reduction in the number of fraudulent claims.

So, our impulsive system-one certainly seems susceptible to the odd nudge, but many questions still remain. For example, which nudges work best? – Has anyone spotted the motorway signs stating ‘Bin your litter, other people do’? This sign was based on the theory that people are more likely to comply if they think that complying is a social norm. Personally, I find this particular nudge a bit condescending. OK, so I’m yet to throw litter out may car window just to make a point, but I also don’t feel compelled to comply. Also, when does a nudge become a shove and who decides the best direction to nudge people in? These are all important questions that need some serious thought. But, overall I think that the nudge is certainly an interesting concept and one that could offer more insights into human behaviour.

What are your views? Has anyone spotted any more hidden nudges? Add your comment below, other people do!

Post by: Sarah Fox

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Neuroinformatics: scary stuff.

At the University there are always talks and lectures happening across campus and this year I have successfully managed to sneak into some quite intellectual (and generally confusing!) talks explaining new research.

brian1Recently I attended a lecture on ‘Neuroinformatics’ by Dan Goodman, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School and creator of a computer program that imitates neural behaviour called Brian.

Neuroscience, just like modern technology, is getting awfully fiddly. Long gone are the days when relatively simple discoveries such as Galvani’s seminal observation that a frog’s muscle twitches when a current is passed through it, were viewed as ground­breaking (Galvani, 1700’s). This discovery opened the door for further work exploring the role of electricity in nerve cell communication – a field which took neuroscience research to a new level of complexity.

Thanks to work by Neher and Sackmann in the 1970’s developing the patch clamp technique, we can now study electrical activity of single brain cells (neurons). The patch clamp technique allowed researchers to probe the electrophysiological (think electrical and living) properties of single neurons.

We now know that neurons communicate with one another through a special cellular language involving brief fluctuations in electrophysiological activity (known as spikes). (which look something like the image below)

Approximate plot of a typical action potential shows its various phases as the action potential passes a point on a cell membrane. The membrane potential starts out at -70 mV at time zero. A stimulus is applied at time=1 ms, which raises the membrane potential above -55 mV (the threshold potential). After the stimulus is applied, the membrane potential rapidly rises to a peak potential of +40 mV at time=2 ms. Just as quickly, the potential then drops and overshoots to -90 mV at time=3 ms, and finally the resting potential of -70 mV is reestablished at time=5 ms. Schematic of an action potential (Wikipedia)

Approximate plot of a typical action potential shows its various phases as the action potential passes a point on a cell membrane. The membrane potential starts out at -70 mV at time zero. A stimulus is applied at time = 1 ms, which raises the membrane potential above -55 mV (the threshold potential). After the stimulus is applied, the membrane potential rapidly rises to a peak potential of +40 mV at time = 2 ms. Just as quickly, the potential then drops and overshoots to -90 mV at time = 3 ms, and finally the resting potential of -70 mV is reestablished at time = 5 ms.
Schematic of an action potential (Wikipedia)

However, the brain is much more than single cells and their associated spikes, it is actually made up of many neurons, all interacting with and influencing each other. Therefore, studying the behaviour of singular neurons is a rather long, laborious process that,

Typical neuroscientist at the end of a long week

Typical neuroscientist at the end of a long week

although informative, cannot tell us about how the brain functions as a whole. This problem could be solved if we could study the human brain directly, but as you can imagine it is a little hard to get willing human volunteers. (see left)

Luckily, scientists such as Alan Turing toyed with the relationship between computers, mathematics and the brain, developing the idea of the ‘human computer’. Advances in technology mean that scientists can now study many neural interactions simultaneously. But, as the experiments grow in complexity, so does the amount of data to anaylse….(Leading to many, many sleep deprived  scientists – also see left )…

So, computer scientists and mathematicians, armed with knowledge of models and computational methods, rose to the neuroscientist’s aid. Thus, the interdisciplinary age began.

Dan argued that complicated algorithms brought some neuroscientists out in cold sweats, so he tried to create easy, user friendly, software – hence Brian was born. I could feel the itchy feet of one researcher behind me, dying to challenge the speaker to an intellectual dual (scientists are quite territorial over their fields of expertise and occasionally I have to resist the urge to stand up with a bell and shout “round 1”). The antagonist, in this case, 2268845904_e0ddae5fec_owas somewhat skeptical about Brian and its benefits over SpinNaker, another computer based simulation designed to model brain circuits. Words that I would have needed to google beforehand such as ‘GPU’, ‘jinja’  and ‘Numpy’ were thrown around the room ­ and I realised that I agreed with Dan – after a 3 year Neuroscience degree, the only word I understood was ‘Andriod’ and that is because of my phone!  At the end of the talk, he ran a demo of Brian to show how it imitates neuronal behaviors at both the network and single cell level. This is important because if we can  create a human brain online, we can manipulate it to see how diseases such as Dementia occur, giving us a sneaky bit more insight into how to tackle these problems.

Afterwards, several things dawned on me; specifically, the complexity of neuroscience analysis and how important it is to be a Jack­-of­-all-­trades in the research industry, as well as having an open mind and being a little nosy when it comes to areas of research outside your own comfort zone ­ you never know what you might need to know these days..

Post by: Clare McCullagh

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The Brain on Tetris

You’re probably all too familiar with Tetris as a procrastination tool – but did you know about its far more reputable role in psychological research?

If you’ve ever played Tetris for a while, you may have noticed its lingering effects– such as daydreaming of objects in the room slotting together. If this sounds vaguely familiar, the diagnosis is (I kid you not): Tetris Syndrome.

That this is indeed a real phenomenon is backed by the fact that it makes a respectably lengthy appearance on Wikipedia. According to said source, it “occurs when people devote sufficient time and attention to an activity that it begins to overshadow their thoughts, mental images and dreams”.

Thus Tetris not only occupies your mind during the task itself, but seems to form a lasting impression on the brain. This has led to its use in psychology, helping to understand various aspects of how our brains work.


Tetris and skill

For one, Tetris has helped shine some light on what happens in the brain when our skills develop. A study in 2009 showed that over the course of a month of playing Tetris, brain areas linked to playing the game gradually reduce their use of glucose (the brain’s natural fuel) while skill levels continuously improve. This means, despite our brains appearing less engaged, they’re doing a better job. The conclusion: greater skills come from a more energy efficient brain.

Tetris to prevent PTSD

That Tetris can help us understand skill acquisition isn’t too surprising….but what about its use as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Researchers at Oxford University showed that volunteers who played Tetris after watching a truly traumatic video reported half as many flashbacks over the next few days than those who did a trivia quiz. The team’s explanation is that the high cognitive demands of Tetris prevent the traumatic memory from ‘settling in’. As it takes around 6 hours for memories to enter a more long-term state, this treatment has a very limited time-window to work. It essential means we’d need Tetris arcades set up in warzones – seems somewhat questionable if you ask me.

The Tetris diet?

Ok so, maybe Tetris isn’t the thing to play during exam-time then. But maybe it’s worth a go when you’re feeling a bit peckish. It turns out Tetris has the potential to reduce cravings. A group of individuals who were asked about their cravings where split into two: one who played Tetris and one who got to stare at the loading screen (heartless, I know). The players got over their cravings whereas the control group didn’t. Tetris: the new diet? The media definitely took it that way.


Dreams of Tetris

Tetris has also been moonlighting in sleep research. A curious study from Harvard University investigated what happens to the dozing brain after playing Tetris for a ridiculously long period of time. In addition to the usual healthy average Joes and Janes, the study included a few amnesics, as well as a selection of “Tetris experts” (there’s actually a global ranking system for Tetris professionals).



Across three days the ‘experimentees’ played a total 7 hours of Tetris and were asked to describe what they saw when drifting off to sleep each night. “Tetris experts” could hear music (the famous Russian Tetris theme Korobeniki) and see colours from versions they’d played years before; while the amnesics were pretty confused as they didn’t have a clue what Tetris was, nor why some strange person in a lab coat was sitting in their bedroom. Yet even they described geometric shapes falling from the sky and slotting into spaces.

Besides showing that amnesics actually can form visual memories, this study seems to suggest that our daydreams and dozing thoughts are serving a purpose, a kind of subconscious training and integration of old and newly learnt abilities perhaps.

So, far from being just some trivial game that you cannot actually ever win (think about it…), its power to occupy and sway the mind has actually made Tetris an extremely fascinating research tool.


Post by: Isabel Hutchison

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What is your gut telling you?

Intuition might seem like a concept too vague to be worthy of scientific investigation. Some cognitive psychologists see it as the opposite of rational thinking or reasoning – the time-saving ‘rule of thumb’. We often talk about it as the ‘gut feeling’, or the ‘feeling of knowing’. Intuition allows us to make a quick decision, based  on our stored knowledge and without the need for conscious deliberation. Such an ability is not only useful but often necessary in our fast paced hectic world – no wonder that the human brain is so well adapted to using intuitive judgments.

Perceiving the world, e.g. seeing something, is accomplished through brain structures that form a hierarchy. For instance, at the lower end of this hierarchy sensory regions of the brain (the concrete-processing areas) respond to and interpret physical features of what we see, such as colour or orientation of lines. Higher up, separate areas (the abstract specialists) then analyse more abstract characteristics, e.g. category or meaning.

It would be hard and time-consuming to process every single object in a bottom-up manner (from concrete to abstract); the visual cortex would need to perform a detailed analysis and generate numerous possible options as to what an object could be. Hence, the brain adopts a different strategy. If we look at an image of a fragmented object and at an image containing only scrambled lines we can quickly recognise which one can be completed into something meaningful, even though we do not consciously recognize the object (see below).

An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right). Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE  5(3): e9523. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009523

An image of a bed: fragmented (left) and scrambled (right).
(Luu P, Geyer A, Fidopiastis C, Campbell G, et al. (2010) Reentrant Processing in Intuitive Perception. PLoS ONE)

This is because the concrete-processing areas send information to the abstract-specialists before they engage in a laborious analysis of details. One of the brain’s ‘abstract specialists’ is the medial orbitorfrontal cortex. The orbitofrontal cortex is situated quite high in the hierarchy of perception, so does not get involved in analysing the physical details of an object. Rather, its job is to assess information from structures lower in the hierarchy and decide on the emotional content of the experience and whether or not an action is required.

Having received the signal about the fragmented image, the medial orbitofrontal cortex works out the ‘gist’ of the image – an intuitive judgment as to what this object could be. Then this ‘gist’ is sent back down to the areas of the visual cortex, where it guides more detailed analysis of the object. The whole process takes place within a couple of hundreds of milliseconds – no wonder we are not even aware of it! But, how does the orbitofrontal cortex know what the fragments of lines might mean? The image activates information that we already have stored in the vast networks of knowledge about similar items. Hence, even if we consciously do not recognize an object, we can tell that it is, in fact, a meaningful thing, as opposed to a similar image containing only scrambled lines.

So we have an idea of how the areas of the brain work together when we experience the ‘feeling of knowing’ or make intuitive decisions. Good communication between the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract specialists’ is key in this process. What would perhaps be useful to find out is: are there ways of increasing or improving our ability to use intuition to make good decisions? Should it be encouraged in certain situations where explicit information is lacking? Is it true what they say about women’s intuition and if so – how would that manifest in the brain activity? Even though we might sometimes underestimate intuition, the brain takes advantage of it whenever possible.

Post by: Jadwiga Nazimek

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Helen Beatrix Potter: Author, Illustrator and Scientist

Helen Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter with her spaniel Spot (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired)

You may be forgiven for thinking of Beatrix Potter as the talented author and illustrator of a large number of children’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but she is much more than that. For Beatrix Potter was a leading mycologist (someone who studies fungus) and conservationist and it was these interests that lead her to write her best-selling books. Beatrix Potter continues to enlighten people today as a recently discovered parasitic fungus (Tremella simplex) in Aberdeen was found to have been drawn by Beatrix Potter in the late 1890’s. So what drew the young Beatrix to nature and its study?

Beatrix was interested in nature from a very young age and was very meticulous in recording observable data, often drawing or painting what she observed in nature. Although these paintings were not systematic as Beatrix drew what interested her it led to her close friend John Everett Millais acknowledging her keen eye: “plenty of people can draw, but you…have observation.” From as young as nine years of age Beatrix was drawing watercolours of caterpillars with anatomical and field observations. Her love of nature was further enhanced by opportunities during her childhood. Beatrix was born into a wealthy family and so enjoyed summer holidays near the River Tay in Scotland which enabled her to draw a wide range or flora and fauna in the local area. Additionally, she was able to learn photographic techniques, including detail and perspective, from her father Rupert, an amateur photographer, further enhancing Beatrix’s talent in painting. Subsequent trips to the Lake District also influenced a lot of Beatrix’s painting at a young age. On these trips she also exhibited a keen interest in geography and archaeology, noting in her journals about the formation of land, soil erosion and paintings of fossils.

Educated privately through governesses at home, Beatrix’s talent in drawing was recognised early and further tuition in painting was provided. However, this was detested by Beatrix who did not wish to copy other painters but experiment with her own style, later sticking with watercolours. Beatrix cared for a lot of pets at home and these provided a great source of inspiration for many of her drawings. She would also draw a menagerie of animals secretly hidden in the nursery with her younger brother Walter Bertram including mice, rabbits, bats, snails, egg collections and insects. Additionally, when pets died the Potter children would boil the corpse and play with the bones to learn more about the anatomy of the animals they drew.

Oyster mushroom mycelium growing on a bed of coffee granules  (Photo: Tobi Kellner, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

Oyster mushroom mycelium growing on a bed of coffee granules
(Photo: Tobi Kellner, Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0)

At first, study for her drawings were through the use of a hand lens, then a camera and later with her younger brother’s microscope and this is how Beatrix became fascinated with fungi. Her interests began at first with their colour and structure and she later became interested in her 30’s in the role of spores in reproduction of different fungi. At the time this topic was highly debated within British mycologist circles. On a holiday to Scotland in 1892, Beatrix formed an alliance with a noted naturalist Charles McIntosh and exchanged her accurate drawings of rare specimens for his knowledge of microscopic drawing of fungi, knowledge of taxonomy and live specimens during winter. By 1895, Beatrix had collected and drawn the spores and spore-producing structures (basidia) of the mushroom Boletus granulatus, now called Suillus granulatus. She had also successfully managed to germinate spores of a number of species and produced drawings of the mycelium.

With these interesting results at the time, Beatrix approached the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Gardens only to be dismissed by the current director, Willian Thiselton-Dyer. However, her uncle, the chemist Henry Enfield Roscoe, encouraged Beatrix to continue her research into fungal spore reproduction, which she then later offered to the Linnean Society in London, though at the time they did not admit women or allow them to attend meetings. The paper Beatrix submitted was titled ‘On the germination of the spores of Agaricineae’ and contained many of her microscope drawings. This paper has since been lost but it seemed as if Beatrix was heavily interested in the idea of hybridisation.

Around this time as well, the principal of London’s Morley Memorial College for Men and Women, Caroline Martineau, commissioned Beatrix to produce lithographs for use in lectures, of which two survive today, one on a Sheetweb spider and the other of insects. After a lifetime of drawing Beatrix donated her botanical and mycological drawings to the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, Lake District. These are still used today by both amateur and professional mycologists and 59 of her drawings were reproduced in a book on fungi.

Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain)

Benjamin Bunny from one of Beatrix Potter’s books
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons, photo in the public domain)

However, these feats are not the limits to Beatrix’s love of nature. During her life, Beatrix also became fascinated with the countryside, not in keeping with her parents’ views for their child, and became a wealthy land owner in the North of England, running both her own farms and those she shared with the National Trust. It is through this work that Beatrix became interested in conservation, particularly concerned with breeding native Herdwick sheep and promoting the preservation of the land in the Lake District. On her death, Beatrix Potter donated her land to the National Trust and today over 1700 hectares are still enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year.

Therefore, through her work as both a mycologist and conservationist it is important that we think of Beatrix Potter as more than an author. For it was through Beatrix Potter, who fought against societies who did not acknowledge women and rejected her papers that the foundations of mycology was born. In Beatrix’s own words ‘with opportunity the world is very interesting.’

SSAThis post, by author Rebecca Jones, was kindly donated by the Scouse Science Alliance and the original text can be found here.

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Singing the praises of reconsolidation (and shouting about asparagus)

Having studied Psychology in various forms for many years, I have often questioned the merit of some theories. It seemed to me that the psychological mechanisms that we investigate are often far removed from natural behaviour, and I shared the view of many that my field has a tendency to be reductionist – simplifying complex feelings and behaviours to little more than cogs in a machine.

In fact, in my cynicism I have at times wondered Memorywhether some reported parts of behaviour actually exist. One example, taken from research on the topic of memory, is a process referred to as ‘reconsolidation’. According to reconsolidation theory even a firm, long-term memory can be tampered with, possibly changing the memory altogether. Reconsolidation centres upon the process of ‘consolidation’ where a memory trace is converted from short- to long-term memory.

For reconsolidation to occur an existing memory must first be reactivated by a similar experience. It is this reactivation which renders the memory unstable. The unstable memory can then be modified by new experiences/information and undergoes a second consolidation, or ‘reconsolidation’. It is during this stage that alterations to the original memory can be made. The extent to which the reconsolidated memory persists depends upon the properties of the similar experience, but research suggests that the changes can be permanent in some circumstances.

My initial scepticism regarding this process was two-fold. Firstly, I found it hard to believe that an established long-term memory could be affected by showing me another similar piece of information. Could the memory of my parent’s address be altered like this? Surely this was absurd? Secondly, it seemed to me that reconsolidation theory may have been a scientific explanation of confusion brought about by knowledge of two similar and conflicting pieces of information – something I’m sure we have all experienced before.

Until recently, I hadn’t experienced anything in my own life that I could attribute to the process of reconsolidation, but I’m pleased to report that recently my stand-point on this has changed somewhat. Whilst living in Germany and attempting to learn the language, my German friends would often ask me to tell them an English word for something. My prior conclusions would have led me to believe that I could not possibly forget an English word that I have known all my life, simply by holding the equivalent German word in my head at the same time. However, one day whilst in the supermarket my German friend pointed to ‘Weisse Spargel’, which I knew in German and English. When he asked me for the English word, all I could do was stare blankly and mutter ‘Weisse Spargel’. It took me several hours of frustrated thinking before I eventually shouted out ‘ASPARAGUS’ later that evening!


In conclusion, I believe it is probable that repeatedly seeing the Weisse Spargel in the context of a German supermarket, over many visits reactivated my memory of the word asparagus. This reactivation rendered my initial knowledge temporarily unstable, and upon reconsolidation my knowledge was re-weighted to the German, rather than the English word. I can discount the possibility of being confused in this case because my knowledge of the word asparagus was not something I could mix up with something else. The information was there, but something very real had changed that made it more difficult to access.

I’m pleased to report that, although this was not an isolated incident, there were no lasting side effects, and I have not (yet) permanently lost my ability to speak English.

To find out more, please see this review by Thomas Agren.

Post by Gemma Barnacle

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The Power of Yawning

No one looks pretty doing it yet somehow, when we see someone compulsively distort their face into a yawn, we feel inclined to do the same. We share this odd behaviour with a whole bunch of animals, who each do it for different reasons. Dogs do it when they’re confused, snakes do it to realign their jaws, lions do it to feign indifference in the face of combat, male penguins yawn to woo a mate and guinea pigs do it to scare enemies with their fierce incisors.


You wouldn’t want to encounter this fellow in a dark alley way.

Ancient Greeks and Mayas believed that yawning was the soul trying to escape the confines of the body and that it could only be stopped by covering your mouth. In Hinduism, yawning is considered a religious offense that must be repented by snapping your fingers and thumb and pronouncing the name of Raina. A more ‘sciency’ (yet equally unproven) notion is that yawning helps replenish blood oxygen.

In truth, yawning has only quite recently been husked of some of its mystery:

Us humans, as it turns out, are literally just cooling our brains (try yawning with a cool pack on your forehead). The reason for this is that our brains work best within a narrow temperature range. Staying awake longer than we should can heat up your brain as processes can get a bit out of control. When we go to sleep our brain temperature drops, allowing our brains to deal with some of the damage done during our waking hours. So perhaps yawning is just a quick fix until we can take a nap or sleep

The balance of chemicals in your brain also affects how much you yawn. Endorphins (increased by exercise, orgasms and horror movies) and adrenaline, generally prevent you from yawning while serotonin (increased by most antidepressants and MDMA) makes you yawn more. Why these chemicals affect yawning the way they do is still a bit of a mystery.

6703771645_f21858a47b_zYawning is contagious. In fact, just hearing someone yawn or reading about it (sorry…) will do the trick. Amazingly, yawning even breaks the species barrier, with studies showing that dogs and chimps will both mimic a human yawn! The degree of contagiousness amongst humans depends on how emotionally close you are to the yawner. Also, individuals with autism/asbergers syndrome don’t yawn in response to others; leading to the suggestion that this mimicry is based on empathy and may be an accurate index of your empathetic capacity. It certainly makes an interesting way of testing friendships…

So why is it contagious?

It all comes down to mirror neurons in your brain. Generally when you see someone move, certain cells in your brain tend to mimic the action. This helps us to imitate the actions of others, but also to understand them. Actually acting out whatever other people do is usually suppressed (see here for a fascinating talk on mirror neurons and their importance). In the case of yawning, it’s not. The reason it’s not suppressed might not be a coincidence – it smells of evolution. One idea is that it gets social animals to increase their vigilance as a group – so all of them keep a cool brain when on the look out for predators. It could also help signal tiredness to fellow group member, a non-verbal way of saying “it’s bed-time kids”.

So don’t feel bad about yawning. You’re boosting your brain power and showing you care. But you should still cover your mouth. :)

Post by: Isabel Hutchison

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