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Yawning Truths: It’s Not What You Think

April 03, 2018


Yawning Truths: It’s Not What You Think

The age old question of why people yawn is yet to be conclusively answered. Fatigue is a typical symptom of yawning indicating that our body is ready for sleep but it’s not the only reason. Although this may be true in some cases, there are many other interesting claims.

Yawning is a reflex action through a single deep breath with an open mouth, stretching of the jaw and trunk muscles. It’s a common occurrence and not just in humans, animals yawn as well. It involves an interaction between the unconscious brain and the body but the true mechanism remains unclear.

Reasons Why People Yawn

Did you know that babies yawn when they’re still in utero? This really puts one of the previously popular reasons in the spotlight. Some used to believe that yawning brings in more air as the lungs sense low oxygen levels but we’ve learned over the years that the lungs do not necessarily do that. More to the point though, the lungs of a fetus in utero is not yet fully developed which means this theory is as good as debunked.

Yawning is also associated with boredom, sleepiness, anxiety and even hunger. From a scientific standpoint, all of these are responsible for increasing one’s brain temperature. The human brain is very sensitive to even the most subtle changes in temperature and functions best when it’s cool. Numerous studies suggest that yawning may help regulate brain temperature. A warm brain could signal the body to yawn which results in the sinus cavity walls flexing and helping it cool down.

People can easily feel sleepy without proper stimulation. It seems obvious then that when you stare at a blank wall that you are more likely to yawn than when you’re watching a loud music video with bright colours.

Why Is Yawning Contagious?

We’ve all experienced the contagious effect of yawning whether we see or read about it. Some evidence suggest that yawning could be a primitive way of communicating changing conditions within the body or environment. The involuntary action may be related to the evolutionary history of yawning where animals within a certain group would communicate with one another to synchronise behaviour, such as being aware and keeping each other safe.

Other research studies have shown that people with a very empathetic personality are more likely to yawn when they see other people doing it. It’s believed that children younger than four don’t mimic yawns which coincidentally is around the same time they develop empathy. Furthermore, the study also found that autistic children were less likely to experience the contagious effect of another person’s yawn.

Although the brain-cooling theory explains a lot about why we yawn and why it’s contagious but for now, it’s all just theoretical. Other parts of the brain could also be involved and although yawning is a normal function, it’s unclear why it occurs excessively in some patients with brain damage or those suffering from multiple sclerosis. All we know for certain is that yawning is not just a sign of being tired – there is so much more to it. More research is needed to fully understand the origin and meaning of yawning.


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