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Why Do We Yawn?

baby yawning

(As seen in Pegasus Pages, June 2013)

Winner of Journalism Society’s Science Article Competition: Sophie Wand

Let’s face it, school can sometimes be tiring. As it is the end of the term, I have recently been yawning quite a lot (much to my teachers’ dismay) and just thought, ‘Why?’ It may not be something that people often think about but we do it every day of our lives, and in most of our maths lessons… So, why do we yawn?

The first known figure to ponder why we yawn was Hippocrates who thought that yawning preceded a fever and that it was a way to exhale bad air from your lungs; there have been many more theories since. In the 17th and 18th centuries, scientists believed that yawning would improve circulation and raise the heart rate but another more common misconception is that we yawn because we need more oxygen in our brains. This has been disproven because after all, we don’t yawn during and after exercise!

In fact, the biological reason may be related to keeping our brains cool. When we yawn it opens up our ears and throat to let in more air. This air then cools your facial blood keeping your brain at an optimum temperature for better use. Think of it like when your laptop overheats and then those little fans come on to let in more air to cool it down. A study by the University of Albany (2007) showed that if you put an ice pack on your forehead, you are statistically less likely to yawn because your facial blood is already cooled.

However, there is also a social reason that explains why yawning is contagious. You know when someone yawns and then you just happen to yawn as well? Well, it isn’t just because you aren’t paying attention; there is an explanation which relates back to the human beings who first roamed the earth. When you yawn and simultaneously stretch, it is named ‘Pandiculation’ and when you pandiculate, it keeps your muscles stretched and ready. That is why we pandiculate when we wake up or when we feel tired – to keep our muscles alert for use at anytime. The reason that yawning is contagious is because, lets say you were a caveman (or should I say woman?), if you remembered to yawn before a big fight, the rest of your tribe would yawn too. This strategy was something that aided the survival of your tribe.

There is another factor that explains contagious yawning.  42-55% of people when shown a video of other people yawning,  yawned themselves. There have been studies which suggest that the amount that you will contagiously yawn may be related to empathy. Those of us who are more socially empathetic will be more likely to contagiously yawn. In a study by Leeds University (2007), subjects were invited to sit an empathy test but in the waiting room there was one person who was told to yawn once every minute for 10 minutes, and surprisingly, the people who scored highest in the empathy test also yawned the most in the waiting room!

Another study to support the theory that yawning may be related to empathy was conducted by Molly Helt, a clinical psychology researcher at the University of Connecticut, who did research into autistic children with social interaction and communication problems. Children were read a story by a researcher who then paused the story to yawn. 23% of the children who had a mild form of autism (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) yawned contagiously, and astonishingly none of the children with full autistic disorder yawned. This shows that how socially adept you are may also affect wether you will contagiously yawn or not.

So, next time you are sitting in English, annotating Shakespeare, and let out a satisfying yawn, just think about why.

Image: Adam Baker on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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