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!
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.
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.
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.