What’s The Deal With Yawning?

Yawning. Why is it so contagious? Why do we do it in the first place? It’s not just humans that yawn; animals do too. But like sleep, yawning is shrouded in mystery, and we haven’t yet understood the phenomenon. What we do know is that we seem to yawn when we’re tired, bored, sleepy, and when we see others do it.

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To answer the first question i.e. why yawning is contagious, the action was once believed to be connected to feelings of empathy where when you see someone yawn, you empathize and yawn too. But a study by the Duke Center for Human Genome Variation has refuted this and shown that our propensity to yawn when others do decreases when we age. Another study by the University of Connecticut also showed that children tend to become susceptible to contagious yawning only when they reach the age of 4. What’s more interesting is that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are less likely to be caught up in contagious yawning.

So far, we know less than we did about why yawning is contagious. More studies need to be conducted to get to the bottom of it. But what about why we yawn? Several theories abound, and while there’s still much to learn, it’s interesting to see what researchers have come up with.

We Need More Oxygen

A popular theory is that we yawn because we need more oxygen in our lungs and remove the build-up of carbon dioxide. This theory would help explain why we tend to yawn in groups since more people in a space release more carbon dioxide.

While the theory appears to make sense, it’s the brain and not the lungs that sense when oxygen levels in the body are low. Moreover, being given additional oxygen doesn’t necessarily reduce yawning, according to a study by Robert Provine of the University of Maryland.

To Help Rouse Us From A Behavioral State

We yawn in a variety of situations, not only when we’re bored or sleepy. This range of occasions suggests that yawning may be a way to help us transition between states such as from sleepy to awake, from boredom to alertness and so on. Ronald Baenninger of Temple University found that yawning occurred more as a result of lack of stimulation in the environment and was a way to wake us up.

It’s A Leftover Trait

A third theory is that yawning is a vestige of the days of our ancestors when they would yawn to bare their teeth as a sign of intimidation. Some scientists, however, suggest that it’s a vestige of our time in the womb. Richard Roberts of Tennessee’s Genetics and Prenatal Diagnostic Center believes that yawning is leftover behavior from when fetuses yawn and hiccup. He suggests that they do so in order to clear tissue from airways and reduce pressure in the lungs. He posits that there’s no real reason for children and adults to yawn and that it’s just a remnant of behavior that serves no significant purpose once we’re born.

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It Cools The Brain

A second theory and one that’s gaining ground are that yawning helps cool the brain and keeps us alert. A study by the University of Vienna found that people yawn more or less depending on the air temperature. We yawn less when it’s too cold or too hot outside. Researchers also found that contagious yawning occurred more frequently when the temperature was 68 degrees Fahrenheit. They said that yawning wouldn’t work to cool the brain if outside temperatures were warmer than the body.

As we can see, theories about yawning abound, and there undoubtedly will be more in the years to come. It’s hard to say if we ever will be able to get to the bottom of the strange action of yawning. Till then and beyond, we’ll continue to yawn whether it’s to wake us up, to cool our brains, to get more oxygen, or just because it’s something our ancestors – and we in the womb – did!

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