What makes us yawn?

The average yawn lasts about six seconds. See more human senses pictures.

Next time you're in a meeting, try this little experiment: Take a big yawn, cover your mouth out of courtesy and watch to see how many people follow suit. There's a good chance you'll set off a chain reaction of deep breaths and wide-open mouths. And before you finish reading this article, it's likely you'll yawn at least once. Don't misunderstand, we aren't intending to bore you, but just reading about yawning will make you do it, just as seeing or hearing someone else yawn makes us do it, too.

­So what's behind this mysterious epidemic of yawning? First, let's look at what this bodily motion is: Yawning is an involuntary action that causes us to open our mouths wide and breathe in deeply. We know it's involuntary because we do it even before we're born: According to Robert Provine, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, research has shown that 11-week-old fetuses yawn. And while yawning is commonly associated with relaxation and drowsiness, your heart rate can rise as much as 30 percent during a yawn, and yawning is a sign of arousal, including sexual arousal [sources: Alexander, The Stress of Life].


Many parts of the body are in action when you yawn. First, your mouth opens, and your jaw drops, allowing as much air as possible to be taken in. When you inhale, the air taken in is filling your lungs. Your abdominal muscles flex, and your diaphragm is pushed down. The air you breathe in expands the lungs to capacity and then some of the air is blown back out.

Now that we know what a yawn is, let's look at what causes us to do it. On the next page, we'll discuss four popular theories that explain why we open wide and breathe deep.


Common Yawning Theories

The simple truth is that even though humans have been yawning for possibly as long as they have existed, we have no clue as to why we do it.
Simone Van Den Berg/Dreamstime.com

While fatigue, drowsiness or boredom easily bring on yawns, scientists are discovering there's more to yawning than most people think. Not much is known about why we yawn or if it serves any useful function, and very little research has been done on the subject. However, there are several theories about why we yawn. Here are the four most common:

  • The physiological theory: Our bodies induce yawning to draw in more oxygen or remove a buildup of carbon dioxide. This theory helps explain why we yawn in groups. Larger groups produce more carbon dioxide, which means our bodies would act to draw in more oxygen and get rid of the excess carbon dioxide. However, if our bodies make us yawn to draw in needed oxygen, wouldn't we yawn during exercise? Robert Provine, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a leading expert on yawning, has tested this theory: Giving people additional oxygen didn't decrease yawning, and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide in a subject's environment also didn't prevent yawning [source: University of Washington].
  • The evolution theory: Some think that yawning began with our ancestors, who used yawning to show their teeth and intimidate others. An offshoot of this theory is the idea that yawning developed from early man as a signal for us to change activities [source: University of Washington].
  • The boredom theory: Although we do tend to yawn when bored or tired, this theory doesn't explain why Olympic athletes yawn right before they compete in their event or why dogs tend to yawn just before they attack. It's doubtful either is bored [source: Patterson].
  • The brain-cooling theory: A more recent theory proposed by researchers is that since people yawn more in situations where their brains are likely to be warmer -- tested by having some subjects breathe through their noses or press hot or cold packs to their foreheads -- it's a way to cool down their brains. What does it matter if our brains are cold or hot? Cool brains can think more clearly; hence, yawning might have developed to keep us alert [source: Nagourney].

So now that we have an idea of what causes yawning, let's look at why seeing someone yawn might make us yawn, too.


Contagious Yawning

Interestingly, while all vertebrates (including fish) yawn, only humans, chimps and possibly dogs find yawns contagious. And people don't find them contagious until they're about 4 years old. Recent studies show contagious yawning may be linked to one's capacity for empathy [source: Sohn].

In one study, autistic and non-autistic children were shown videos of people yawning and people simply moving their mouths. Both groups of kids yawned the same amount when viewing the video of people moving their mouths. But the non-autistic kids yawned much more frequently than those with autism when watching people really yawning. Since autism is a disorder that affects a person's social interaction skills, including the ability to empathize with others, the autistic kids' lack of yawning when watching others do so could indicate they're less empathetic. The study also found the more severe a child's autism, the less likely he or she was to yawn. On a positive note, someday doctors may be able to diagnose cognitive disabilities in young children more easily by seeing whether or not they can catch a yawn from others [sources: Kahn, Sohn].


So even though we still don't know for sure why we yawn, we do know lots of interesting things about yawning: you start yawning in utero; you yawn when you're aroused; more than half of you will yawn if you see someone else yawn; and reading about yawning makes you yawn [source: Sohn].

So, how many times did you yawn while reading this article? We hope not too many.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Alexander, Brian. "If sex is a yawn, you may actually be turned on." MSNBC. July 30, 2009. (June 8, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32205127/ns/health-sexual_health/t/if-sex-yawn-you-may-actually-be-turned/
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. "Vagus Nerve." (June 15, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/621522/vagus-nerve
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