The secrets of the yawn

The secrets of the yawn

Why do we yawn? It’s an age-old question that intrigues us all. Whether it’s in the middle of a meeting, half way through an important conversation or when you’re concentrating really hard – we’ve all experienced an awkward yawn! Read on to find out more about the science behind the yawn.

Why do we yawn?

We typically yawn when we’re bored, or tired, and this may be down to the amount of oxygen we inhale. Yawning is our body’s way of telling us that we need more oxygen in our blood and less carbon dioxide. When we breathe we tend to breathe deeply, inhaling as much oxygen as possible, when we’re bored or tired our breathing slows down taking in less oxygen.

Some scientists suggest that we yawn in order to cool our brains down. Ever yawn as soon as you wake up? Yawning has been said to cool down our brains in the morning, when our temperature is at its highest.

Another group of scientists suggests yawning improves “arousal and mental efficiency.” Meaning that the next time you struggle to focus at work, a sneaky yawn will help you stay on track. Coupled with contagious yawning, it can help improve group alertness.

Why are yawns infectious?

Ever wondered why you feel the uncontrollable urge to yawn after watching your friend, family member or even pet yawn on the latest animal documentary? Research from the University of Maryland reported yawning to be similar to laughing: Michael Decker, spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, explains: “the yawning becomes more of a social phenomenon than a physiological phenomenon.”

Another theory suggests that we mimic yawns the same way as we mimic emotions. For example, when talking to an upset friend who is complaining about their day, their emotion is shown through frowns and downward eyebrows, we copy their emotion in order to imitate their sadness and this is the same when yawning. This is due to human empathy and is our brain’s natural way of reacting to what it’s being told and how it’s being told.

When do we start yawning?

We start yawning from a young age, a very young age…taking us back to our time in the womb in fact. 20 weeks after conception, babies inside the womb are constantly yawning but this isn’t linked to tiredness or boredom; it is believed to help stimulate the development of the brain. It must be tiring lay in the womb all day! The youngest unborn babies can yawn up to six times an hour… how cute!

The father of medicine, Hippocrates, theorised that our yawning routine is dependent on our health. He believed that when we yawn, it is our body trying to remove any infectious and harmful bacteria from our lungs. However, later research revealed that yawning doesn’t impact on our respiratory system.

3 things you (probably) didn’t know about yawning

Six seconds is the average time…

Many media outlets report the average length of a yawn to last roughly six seconds. A study in 2012 reported the physiological changes we undertake during a yawn are unique solely to a yawn and cannot be replicated when simply taking a breath.

They can make you more alert…

A team of scientists discovered that when we yawn, it cools the brain in order to achieve “arousal and mental efficiency.” Coupled with contagious yawning, it can help improve group alertness. Next time you struggle to focus at work, a sneaky yawn will help you stay on track.

…But also help you to keep calm!

When we yawn, the brain releases oxytocin, which can help the body cope with stress. Before a big speech, event or stressful situation, many people will yawn to help release stress inducing chemicals and calm the nervous system down.

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