WARNING: Side effects include yawning

WARNING: Side effects of reading this blog include yawning.

It’s early in the morning, I woke up not long ago and I can’t seem to stop yawning. It’s not because I find the topic of yawning really boring, but because I actually have no conscious control over my yawns.

Yawning, along with laughing and hiccupping, are primitive behaviours that occur without assistance by the conscious brain. We would all have experienced one of those times when you are in front of your lecturer or boss and you can’t stop your yawn from surfacing. This is followed by a disapproving look from your superior as they can’t believe you utter rudeness. But it’s not your fault!


Ruby (Image credit: Linda McGee [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr)


Why do we yawn?

Well, as expected, yawning is associated with boredom and sleepiness. Although, it has been found that yawning is not related to how much sleep you get the night before. Yawning is effected by anxiety, stress, heat – all of which are associated with thermoregulation of the brain. People yawn more when the temperature is around the optimal thermal zone of 20°C, and yawn less when the temperature is higher or lower than this.

Yawning is also thought to be a way for the body to reactivate itself and regain focus. So, if you are feeling tired, you yawn and you now feel more awake or you are stressed, you yawn, and now you feel calmer.


Yawning is in our nature

Yawning has been seen in paralysed patients who, before and after the yawn, have little or no motor skills. The yawn is such an innate action that it overcomes the body’s paralysis for the length of the yawn allowing movement that the body would not normally be capable of.


Why are yawns contagious?

One thought is that yawning after someone else, or contagious yawning, is a show of empathy.

Backing up this thought, is that young children, including those in utero, experience ‘spontaneous’ yawning. However, they aren’t quite developed enough to partake in contagious yawning. Empathy is a trait that develops later on in life, excusing these youngsters from understanding it.

More so, we are more likely to ‘catch a yawn’ from our closer friends than acquaintances or strangers.


Yawn! (Image credit: Margherita J. L. Lisoni [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr)

For these reasons, contagious yawning was generally limited to primates – particularly humans and chimpanzees (our closest relative). But new evidence indicates that wolves have joined this exclusive group of contagious yawners. It turns out that other mammals may have more ability to show empathy than originally thought.


Corsac Fox (Vulpes Corsac Yawning, Hamerton Zoo (Image credit: Spencer Wright [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr)


We still have a lot to learn about why we yawn and what stimulates contagious yawning. All I know is that I have yawned about 100 times while writing this post, so I think it’s time for a nap.

12 Responses to “WARNING: Side effects include yawning”

  1. jmaguire says:

    @jrozek – Thanks for the link to Mythbusters, I’m glad it was confirmed in the end!
    @Asher – Aha, I know it definitely impacts my yawning whenever I come back to this post. But then again, maybe we are both just stressed!
    @Ashton – I agree, I had similar thoughts as you and I think the fact that animals also experience contagious yawning is good evidence for its true existence. And yes, it is a weird phenomenon!

  2. Ashton Dickerson says:

    Yep, I yawned twice whilst reading this!

    A very interesting read. I always wondered if we subconsciously yawn in response to others.. but just because everyone says that’s what happens. I thought maybe we had tricked our bodies into thinking that’s what should happen. But I suppose since animals do it too then it can’t be something we have all just fooled our bodies into believing. It must be true.

    I still think its weird, haha.

  3. Asher Trama says:

    Wow, I started yawning when I only read the title, and couldn’t stop the whole way through. So I must be a super sympathetic person, seeing all the photos of yawning animals..that or I’m stressed..hmm..

    And I’m still yawning!

  4. jrozek says:

    Mythbusters tested whether yawning is contagious a while back and I remember yawning almost constantly throughout the episode. Even reading about yawning makes me yawn. In fact, I’ve yawned three times while reading this post and writing this comment! What a strange phenomenon, I’m glad it’s not just humans.

    Here is the Mythbusters yawning segment:


  5. dcrock says:

    Such a strange phenomenon, yawning. I haven’t yet succumbed while reading this post, but I can feel the beginnings of one in the back of my throat! It’s a sensation that doesn’t go away easily, too… eventually I will have to yawn.

    Aaaaand there we go.

    As you say Julia, even reading or typing the word yawn seems to encourage the action. So weird.

  6. jmaguire says:

    Apparently, reading or talking about yawning makes you yawn more too!

    mlakidang & arosdah – It was previously thought that yawning occurs due to a lack of oxygen in the brain but, alas, it isn’t true. Yawning doesn’t actually increase oxygen levels in the brain. Think about this, do we yawn a lot when we exercise?

  7. jmaguire says:

    Yeah jcoletto, the whole topic of yawning and contagious yawning is hard to test, hence we still don’t have conclusive evidence on what it all means.

  8. jmaguire says:

    Aha thanks for the entertaining comment njolly! Maybe your brain just gets hotter than your friends’ brains.
    I think any of the options in that scenario should work, but don’t blame my blog if it doesn’t.

  9. arosdah says:

    An interesting post! I’ve heard that yawning is like an indication that our body needs more oxygen, is that true?

    By the way, I yawn the most when I’m doing my assignments. If yawning is really an oxygen indicator, then it probably means that my assignments are suffocating me 🙂

  10. mlakidang says:

    wooa.. I’m yawning now lol! Nice post mate.
    I ofter yawn when I feel sleepy. Is that true that yawning is affected by low oxygen in our brain?
    Thanks 🙂

  11. jcoletto says:

    hahaha great way to finish the post. On the show Myth-busters they try to test scientifically the contagiousness of yawns, but it’s a pretty complicate thing to test and as far as I remember they couldn’t get accurate results. For me i still believe is something from our nature, as the same way dogs bark, maybe we used to yawn more in the past, and are losing this behaviour slowly.

  12. njolly says:

    wow! i never thought of contagious yawning as a show of empathy… i must admit i haven’t really thought about it that much, but it’s certainly not the first thing that came to my head when i started reading this post.

    i swear that i never see my friends yawn, and i feel like i do quite often. now i always thought this was because i was always more tired due to a more strenuous university timetable… but now i’m second guessing that. although, i don’t think it is due to anxiety or stress!… (at least i hope it isn’t!!)

    Scenario: you have an important meeting with an important client in an hour, and you’ve been yawning all morning and you are afraid they will take a yawn as an insult. Do you drink a coffee, turn the heat up (or down) or get them to read this blog so they are not offended by a yawn?