Yawn-Fest: Behind The Scenes

yawnI was driving my 15-year old to his afternoon orthodontist appointment last week, and he yawned throughout the ten-minute trip.

“Wow, am I tired,” he said.

“Tired?” I questioned incredulously. “What do you have to be tired about?!? You’ve lounged around all day.”

Jackson shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps giving me a full-sentence answer would have been too taxing.

Wouldn’t you know, I found myself yawning the rest of the trip, too. It was like dueling yawning. Jackson asked why yawns were so “contagious,” and I had to reply that I had no idea.

After a little research, I have only a slightly better idea.

According to Wikipedia, one hypothesis as to why we “sympathy” yawn is that the mirror neurons in our frontal cortex, the neurons that are behind our drive to imitate others (the same neurons that are behind are ability to acquire language at early ages), are activated and result in an imitative impulse to yawn.

Another evolution-related theory is that yawns serve to synchronize mood in animals, similar to the howl of a wolf pack. It signals tiredness to the group in order to synchronize sleep patterns and periods.

OK, those are possible explanations as to why we yawn when others do. But why do we yawn in the first place?

The most common theory is that we yawn when our blood contains increased amounts of carbon dioxide and we need the influx of oxygen that a yawn can provide. However, studies have disputed this notion. Another idea is that yawning is a way to control the temperature of the brain; yawning cools the brain. Yawning may also be caused by a desire to stretch one’s muscles, or be due to nervousness, or be a way to increase alertness.

So, the next time you see someone yawning, don’t get your nose out of joint like I did. Just think about the complexity behind the simple act of yawning and realize we really have no definitive idea why we yawn.

P.S. I yawned seven times during the writing of this post. Oops, there’s another one. Eight. How many times did you yawn while reading it?

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Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.
Marie Curie

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