Don’t Yawn at This Post

Bears do it; bats do it. So do guinea pigs, dogs and humans. They all yawn. It’s a common animal behavior, but one that is something of a mystery.

Humans can yawn from:

  • Boredom
  • sleepiness
  • hunger
  • anxiety
  • stress

All these trigger changes in brain chemistry, which can trigger a spontaneous yawn. But it’s not clear what the yawn accomplishes. One possibility is the yawn perks you up by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory function.

When violinists get ready to go on stage to play a concerto, they often yawn, says Provine. So do Olympians right before a competition, or paratroopers getting ready to do their first jump. One study found that yawning has a similar impact on the brain as a dose of caffeine.

Not all yawn researchers agree with this theory.

Researchers** reviewed several theories of yawning and concluded that the arousal theory lacks evidence. What they did find were several studies that show yawning is highly contagious among humans, suggesting that “yawns might have a social and communicative function,” 

“Looking at yawns, hearing yawns, thinking about yawns or talking about yawns will likely trigger a contagious response. Contagious yawning may have evolved in early humans to boost social bonding, according to Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A good group yawn could serve to perk everyone up to be more vigilant about danger, he says.”

“Another piece of evidence backing up the social bonding theory of yawning is a 2011 study by Ivan Norsicia and Elisabetta Palagi that found people are more likely to copy a yawn if they know the person who is yawning. A stranger’s yawn is less likely to trigger a contagious response. And while babies yawn spontaneously, children don’t engage in contagious yawning until about age 4 — around the same time they’re becoming more socially connected.”

What about other animals? All vertebrates, critters with backbones, yawn spontaneously. But very few yawn contagiously.

“Until the last few years, the feeling was that contagious yawning was unique to humans,” Provine says.

“. . . two more species have been added to the list of contagious yawners: dogs and chimpanzees. When two groups of chimpanzees were shown videos of familiar and unfamiliar chimps yawning, the group watching the chimps they knew engaged in more contagious yawning. This study, by Matthew Campbell and Frans de Waal, supports the theory that yawning plays a role in the evolution of social bonding and empathy.”

“And dogs not only catch each others’ yawns, they are susceptible to human yawning as well. In one study, 29 dogs watched a human yawning and 21 of them yawned as well — suggesting that interspecies yawning could help in dog-human communication.”

*Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Provine has studied what he calls “yawn science” since the early 1980s, and he’s published dozens of research articles on it. “There’s still no consensus on the purpose of a yawn” he says, “the simple yawn is not so simple”.

DID YOU YAWN just reading about yawning?

** Adrian Guggisberg, a professor in the department of clinical neurosciences at the University of Geneva.

Pawsitively Tuesday – B.”E.E.” Yourself


“to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,

to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,”

E.E. Cummings



Edward Estlin “E. E.” Cummings, was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. He wrote approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays, and several essays. Wikipedia

Cumming’s often-odd original typography has been retained.

Insomniacs Often Struggle to Get Past Emotional Distress

“Insomniacs tend to have a hard time getting past embarrassing mistakes, even when the stressful event occurred decades ago, according to a new study by researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience.”

“The scientists asked participants to relive their most shameful experiences from decades ago while observing their brain activity with an MRI scan. They found that while good sleepers had settled those experiences in their head as neutralized memories, those with insomnia had not been able to do so.”

“The finding suggests that failure to neutralize emotional distress could be a major contributor to insomnia and may also help explain why insomnia is the primary risk factor for the development of disorders of mood, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.”*

“Researchers have established that sleep helps us to remember important experiences. But sleep is also necessary to get rid of the emotional distress that may have occurred during those experiences. Both these overnight processes involve changes in the connections between brain cells: some become stronger and consolidate memories, whereas others are weakened and get rid of unwanted associations.”

“Sayings like ‘sleeping on it’ to ‘get things off your mind’ reflect our nocturnal digestion of daytime experiences,” said doctoral student and first author Rick Wassing. “Brain research now shows that only good sleepers profit from sleep when it comes to shedding emotional tension. The process does not work well in people with insomnia. In fact, their restless nights can even make them feel worse.”

“The new findings support a previous study conducted by the same research group. In this study, published in the journal Sleep, the researchers asked participants to sing along to a song karaoke-style. Headphones prevented participants from hearing their own voice and finding the correct pitch. Their singing was recorded and played back for them later.”

“Many participants felt intense shame when listening to their own out-of-tune solo singing. But when good sleepers listened to their own singing again after getting a good night’s sleep, they didn’t feel that distressed about it anymore. They had released the distress from their minds. However, after a restless night, people with insomnia became even more upset about their embarrassing experience.”

“The new findings suggest that insomnia triggers may actually be found in brain circuits that regulate emotions, rather than in brain regions that regulate sleep, as previously believed. These emotion-regulating circuits contain risk genes for insomnia and may not activate properly, as they normally do, during rapid eye movement sleep.”

“Without the benefits of sound sleep, distressing events of decades ago continue to activate the emotional circuits of the brain as if they are happening right now. This suggests that people with insomnia may continue to be haunted by memories of past distress.”

*The findings are published in the scientific journal Brain.

How feeling bad changes the brain & impacts relationships

Our emotions are so powerful that when we are in a positive mood, it can dampen how much pain we feel providing us with an analgesic-like effect. When it comes to negative emotions, the opposite occurs: how we experience pain is exaggerated.

Positive and negative emotions also has impact on how we relate to others.

When our friends are down and gloomy, the feeling can be contagious and can makes us feel more miserable too. Bad moods, negativity, can even spread on social media.

A 2017 study, has shown that when we feel bad it affects our in-built capacity to respond to others in pain. It literally dampens our empathy.

Negative emotions can suppress our brain capacity to be sensitive to others’ pain

Participants were then shown positive or negative movie clips while in a brain scanner. Those who watched a negative clip and then saw clips of others in pain showed less brain activity in areas that are related to pain: the anterior insula and middle cingulate cortex. These are usually active when we see others in pain as well as when we experience pain ourselves. 

Another study found that after watching a negative clip, people tended to judge a face with a neutral emotion as more negative.

These results obviously have real-world implications. If a person in power has been exposed to something negative in their lives – even something as simple as a negative movie – they could be less sensitive to others in pain and even view them more negatively. Our bad moods literally make us less receptive to others’ feelings.

Anxious and depressed patients who suffer from an excess of negative emotions are more likely to focus on their own problems and be isolated.

A lack of empathy has other implications too. Findings show that reduced empathy will result in less money donated to charity. Brain scans reveal that we also show less empathy to those who are not in our immediate social circle.

So why would negative emotions reduce empathy?

It could be that a specific type of empathy, called empathic distress, is at play. This, explains Olga Klimecki, at the University of Geneva, is “the feeling of being overwhelmed” when something bad happens to someone else, which makes you want to protect yourself instead of being overcome by negative feelings. This type of empathy even shows very different brain activation compared to typical empathy. This kind of distress might naturally also reduce compassion.

One 2016 study even found that empathic distress increases aggression. Participants were subjected to unfair scenarios and then had the chance to punish or forgive their competitors. The participants were asked to do personality tests before they came into the lab. Those who were more naturally compassionate reacted with less derogatory behaviour.

For Olga Klimecki this was telling. In her extensive research on empathy she has shown that it is possible to cultivate more compassionate behaviour. She found that feelings of compassionate empathy can be trained. Our emotional responses to others are therefore clearly not set in stone.

So next time you are in a foul mood, consider the effect it might have on the people you communicate with day-to-day. 

*Emilie Qiao-Tasserit, the University of Geneva, and colleagues.


How to live to be 100: color your thumb GREEN

The “blue zones”, where people live the longest: Okinawa, Japan – Nicoya, Costa Rica – Icaria, Greece – Loma Linda, California and Sardinia, Italy have 4 things in common:

  1. Lots of social support
  2. Daily exercise
  3. A plant based diet
  4. People who garden into their 80’s and 90’s!

So is there a reason people with “green thumbs” live longer?

Gardening is a popular hobby, and something the world’s oldest living people have in common. “. . . the analogy of a chair: diet, physical activity, mental engagement and social connection are the four legs. If you’re missing a chair leg  you fall out of balance, and it can shorten life expectancy. Longevity isn’t about one single factor . . . “*Maybe you should take it up (if you haven’t already).

Keep your mood up

Being outdoors lifts your mood and moderate exercise is correlated with a longer life. Gardening gives you both . . . continually.   It doesn’t matter if you plant flowers, vegetables or hedges.  All gardens need tending, so people who garden get all the benefits of exercise and sunshine regularly.

There is evidence that gardeners live longer and are less stressed and studies show both physical and mental health benefits from gardening:

  • In a Dutch study, people who read for half an hour after having experienced a stressful task reported their mood had gotten worse, while those who gardened instead of reading, “not only had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol afterwards, they also felt “fully restored” to a good mood.”
  • Australian researchers found that people in their 60s who regularly gardened had a 36% lower risk of dementia than their non-gardening counterparts. Even people with cognitive issues benefit. Fresh air and sunshine have a calming effect.
  • In Okinawa, which has the highest ratio of people over 100, Dr Bradley Willcox of the University of Hawaii says it is believed there that  “anybody who grows old healthfully needs an ikigai, or reason for living. Gardening gives you that something to get up for every day.” Residents also value a lot of social interaction, such as sharing what you have grown at the local market.
  • People who are surrounded by lush greenery live longer, according to a Harvard University study. When you garden, you create greenery all around you. Even a small garden lets you be in touch with nature.

There’s a simple truth: gardeners are more likely to plant what they want to eat.

You are likely to eat more vegetables and fruit, which are a big part of the kind of diet that is associated with longevity.  And you know exactly what pesticides, if any, you have sprayed onto the food.

If you’re ready for a job change . . .

There’s evidence that farming is one of the healthiest careers.  Farmers:

  • have fewer chronic illnesses (by a third)
  • are less likely to see a doctor
  • are less likely to die of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes than the population as a whole.
  • work later into life
  • live longer

No land?  Buy container pots!

or move to Okinawa, Japan – Nicoya, Costa Rica – Icaria, Greece – Loma Linda, California or Sardinia, Italy


*Dr Bradley Willcox of the University of Hawaii studies

One hour a week staves off disability

Unfortunately, pain, not prevention,  is my primary motivator:  When a body part hurts or doesn’t function I research, try healthier behavior, seek help or advice . . . I change and when I feel better revert to old ways.  

Freddie, however, keeps me walking and hopefully keeps me from being a 2 in 5 statistic*   (jw)

The goal was to see what kind of activity would help people remain free of disability:
Study investigators analyzed four years of data from more than 1,500 adults in the national Osteoarthritis Initiative from Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Columbus and Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The adults all had pain, aching or stiffness in lower extremity joints from osteoarthritis but were free of disability when they began the study. Their physical activity was monitored using accelerometers.

“Just one hour a week of brisk walking — as if you are late to an appointment or trying to make a train — staves off disability in older adults with arthritis pain, or aching or stiffness in a knee, hip, ankle or foot.”**

Less than 10 minutes a day to maintain your independence.


*An estimated 14 million older adults in the U.S. have symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of osteoarthritis. Approximately two in five people with osteoarthritis develop disability limitations.

Federal guidelines recommend older adults with arthritis should participate in low-impact activity. For substantial health benefits including reducing the risk for heart disease and many other chronic diseases, these guidelines recommend older adults participate in at least 2.5 hours a week of moderate-intensity activity.

%d bloggers like this: