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Première conférence internationale sur le bâillement
First International Conference on Yawning
Paris 24 - 25 juin 2010
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The interplay between yawning and vigilance: a review of experimental evidence
Adrian G. Guggisberg
Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland
Yawning is a phylogenetically old behaviour of ubiquitous occurrence. The origin and function of this conspicuous phenomenon have been subject to speculations for centuries. A widely held hypothesis posits that yawning increases the arousal level in case of sleepiness, thus providing a homeostatic regulation of vigilance. This article reviews experimental data on the relationship between yawning and vigilance that allows testing the components and predictions of this hypothesis.
Behavioural studies and electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings of brain activity before and after yawning provide consistent evidence that yawning occurs during states of low vigilance, thus substantiating the notion that it is provoked by sleepiness. However, studies analyzing autonomic nervous activity and EEG based indices of vigilance in yawning subjects did not find persistently increased arousal levels or specific autonomic activations after yawning. The data therefore does not support an arousing effect of yawning or a role in regulation of vigilance or autonomic tone. Instead, yawning has been shown to have contagious effect on others, and to activate brain regions responsible for social interaction and self-processing.
We therefore suggest that yawning has an intrinsically social role rather than a homeostatic function in the individual, i.e., it is a non-verbal (and potentially subconscious) form of communication, which is crucial for synchronizing the behaviour of a group of individuals.