Ever feel the urge to yawn during a meeting or a lecture? And you try desperately to stifle it, but you unfortunately end up making a very strange face? Well you’re not alone!
Yawning is a common behavioural event that we share with vertebrates (animals with a backbone). This includes mammals, fish, crocodiles, birds and so on. Interestingly, contagious yawning has only been reported in humans, primates and most recently, in domestic dogs.
So what is a yawn? Well, it is characterised by the gaping of the jaws, narrowing or closing of the eyes, inhalation through the oral airway and a shorter exhalation. In fact, try yawning with a clenched jaw, its impossible. And pinching your nose close during a yawn will not stop it either.
It is produced unconsciously, and it is also unstoppable as well as contagious. Yawning is so contagious that even reading or thinking about it can trigger a yawn. Robert Provine, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, observed that:
- 88% of people yawned within 30 minutes when thinking about yawning.
- 30% yawned within 5 minutes of reading an article about yawning.
- People are more than twice as likely to yawn when observing yawns (55%) compared to people who observed smiles (21%).
But why do people yawn when others yawn? It is believed that it is a form of social bonding and a sign of empathy. It has been discovered that people yawn more in response to the yawns of people that they care about. Therefore, the stronger the bond you have with someone the higher the rate you will yawn in response to their yawn; so first family, then friends, then acquaintances and lastly strangers. However, this contagiousness is impaired in children with empathy disorders such as autism – supporting the argument that contagious yawning is a sign of empathy.
Enough about contagious yawns, how about those spontaneous yawns that happen while sitting alone? Recent research suggests that yawning is a mechanism to cool the brain. The idea is that yawning acts as a radiator to remove warmer blood and replace it with cooler blood – to stop our brains from overheating.
So whether you yawn because you see someone else yawning; you’re reading this article about yawning; or that your brain is trying to cool down a little – one thing is for sure. I can’t stop yawning!