Yawning: Why We Do it & What It Means
May 21st, 2021 •
Imagine you’re in a big, important meeting, when all of the sudden, you feel the urge to yawn. Once you realize you need to yawn, there’s almost no way to stop it, but you try anyway because you don’t want your boss to think you’re bored. Really, you are paying close attention, you’re just exhausted from staying up the whole night before, prepping for this meeting. Finally, you can’t fight it, and the yawn slips out, though you try to be inconspicuous about it.
Odds are, all of us have been in a situation like this at one time or another. But why is it so hard to stop a yawn? Why do we yawn in the first place? What even is yawning? It’s such a common occurrence, we often take yawning for granted without really understanding it, but in this article, we want to demystify the science and psychology of yawning.
What is Yawning?
A yawn is an involuntary, deep inhalation of air with the mouth gaping open, usually interpreted as a sign of sleepiness or boredom. It has three phases: a long intake of air (coupled with a wide stretching of the jaw and gaping open mouth), followed by a climax or hiatus, followed by a much more rapid exhalation. This process may take as little as 3 seconds, but it typically takes around 6 seconds from start to finish.
As we’ll discuss in the rest of this article, there are many possible reasons for why people yawn, and it is true that yawning is contagious, but there are ways to stop a yawn in its tracks if you know what you’re doing. Find out how below.
Why Do We Yawn?
Even though yawning is associated with boredom, it actually isn’t caused by boredom at all. Yawning is part of something called pandiculation, or the pandicular response, which is simply the act of stretching and yawning. Pandiculation is found in all kinds of species, including humans, and it actually serves a very important purpose for our neuromuscular health.
When we wake up and engage in stretching and yawning, we are preparing our brains and our muscles for the day ahead. Pandiculation is a kind of transition period where you bump up your heart rate, stretch out your muscles, increase blood flow throughout the body and give your brain a big boost of oxygen with the deep breath that starts a yawn.
That boost of oxygen is actually one of the debunked reasons why humans yawn. For a long time, researchers believed that yawning was at least partially a respiratory function which served to increase oxygen concentrations in our blood, but recently, that theory has been disproven. According to recent studies, yawning is not associated with higher or lower levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
Instead, it seems that yawning plays a role in thermoregulation, which is simply a term to describe how the body regulates your core temperature. Specifically, some research has shown that yawning may function as a brain cooling mechanism. Our internal body temperature has a relatively narrow range of acceptable temperatures, but the range for our brain temperature is even narrower.
When our brain overheats, we can become unfocused, distracted, or even dizzy and confused. Yawning helps counteract this overheating by causing increased blood flow and blood pressure, which causes spinal fluid to cycle through the body more quickly, and effectively cooling down the brain.
Is Yawning Contagious?
The short answer is yes, absolutely! But what is contagious yawning and why does it happen?
Well, yawning is contagious in the same way the coronavirus is, it doesn’t spread through bacteria or a virus. Instead, it spreads as a social function of empathy, causing something sometimes called yawn contagion. Basically, when we see someone yawn, it makes us want to yawn too, and sometimes even thinking or reading about yawning or listening to someone else yawn can be enough to trigger one.
This appears to be more due to social conditioning than to any purely physiological reaction, and it has been hypothesized that a major function of the yawn contagion may be to promote social cohesiveness. Another theory is more survival-based. Some researchers suggest that we yawn when others yawn to ensure that everyone is equally alert during a period of drowsiness or boredom when our guards might otherwise be let down. It may therefore be a kind of survival instinct inherited from our evolutionary past.
Some research suggests that people with low empathy may be less prone to yawn contagion, but in reality, we can’t be sure because we still aren’t sure why some people experience less empathy than others. For instance, it is a widely held myth that autistic individuals are less empathetic, but in reality, there is no basic medical research support that idea.
How to Stop a Yawn
So yawning is a natural biological process, so how are you supposed to stop it when you’re at an important event where you don’t want to appear bored? Here are a few tricks to preventing an embarrassing yawn:
- Take several deep breaths in through your nose (not your mouth, that will only encourage the yawn) and out through your mouth.
- If you have access to water, take a few sips of cool water. One of the main functions of yawning is to cool down our brain temperature, so taking a sip of cool water can help do that without necessitating a yawn.
- Try to concentrate as hard as you can on your bodily sensations. Some research suggests that high levels of bodily awareness can help prevent yawns.
If you try out all of these tips and still find it difficult to keep yourself from yawning, then this next section is for you.
Can You Yawn Too Much?
Yawning too much won’t cause you any physical harm, but it could be a sign of a bigger problem: sleep deprivation.
The most widely supported theory about why we yawn is to cool down our brains, and one of the main things that can cause brain overheating? Lack of sleep. Even though our lives are busy, sleep really is an absolutely integral part of our overall wellbeing. Lack of sleep can lead to excessive yawning, but it can also lead to much bigger health issues, like heart disease, high blood pressure, mood disturbances, memory problems, and more.
If you’re noticing that you can’t help but yawn a lot more than you’d like, try dedicating yourself to getting at least 7 hours of sleep every night and see if your yawning problem improves.
Yawning might be annoying or embarrassing, but it’s also a helpful tool for keeping our brains nice and cool, no matter how sleep deprived we are.
Once a yawn starts, it’s almost impossible to stop one, but there are a few tricks you can try. If you’re prone to excessive yawning, try to keep a water bottle with you, since cool water is one way to help prevent yawning. And if someone yawns while you’re talking with them, try to remember that it’s almost never a sign of boredom, but rather a sign that they may have stayed up a little too late last night.
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