Why Do We Yawn?

There are several contagious diseases out there which we try our best to avoid by taking appropriate precautions. However, there is one activity which is so contagious that just by looking at someone do it, you tend to do it as well! Yes, yawning is one of the most contagious, uncontrollable actions a body does. Even thinking about yawning can cause you to do it. You are probably yawning right now. But why do we yawn in the first place? And why is it so contagious? Let us find out.

A yawn is an involuntary reflex where the mouth is opened wide, and the lungs take in a substantial amount of air. The air is then exhaled slowly. During this time, the eardrums stretch, and the eyes may also close tight, causing them to water.

No thought or action has to be taken to produce a yawn, and the process is similar for everyone. Yawning commonly occurs either before or after sleep, which is why it is usually considered a sign of being tired. Yawning also occurs frequently in people who are doing boring or tedious things.

There is no definitive cause of yawning which has surfaced yet. However, there are several theories out there which try to explain why we yawn:

1) To cool the brain: Yawning may cool the brain. A yawn causes the jaw to stretch out, increasing blood flow in the face and neck. The large inhale and rapid heartbeat caused by the yawn also causes blood and spinal fluid to cycle through the body faster. This whole process may be a way to cool down a brain that has gotten too hot.

2) A respiratory function: Yawning may be a function of breathing. Yawns may be more likely when the blood needs oxygen. A yawn causes a big intake of air and a faster heartbeat, which could theoretically mean that it is pumping more oxygen through the body. So a yawn may be simply designed to help clear toxins out of the blood and provide a fresh supply of oxygen.

3) A change of state: Yawning, in general, may simply be a way for the body to change the state of awareness it is in:

  • Before bed: yawning could be taken as a sign that the body is preparing for sleep.
  • When bored : yawning while doing a boring task may be a sign of the brain transitioning from a high level of alertness to a lower one.
  • After exercise or sport: yawning after an intense sports activity may be a sign of transitioning from high energy to low energy in the brain.

People may also yawn when changing physical states as well, such as moving from an area of high pressure to low pressure. This pressure can build up in the eardrums and may cause the person to yawn to release it.

Now why is yawning contagious?

There are two possible reasons for this:

  • Time of day: Some researchers have suggested that the time of day or the intelligence of the people who catch the yawn cause contagious yawning, but most people do not think this anymore.
  • Empathy: One of the most common theories is that contagious yawning is a sign of empathy for others. Seeing a person yawn may cause the viewer to yawn, especially if they are close to or comfortable with that person.

Although yawning is super contagious, here are some ways to stifle your yawns:

1. Try deep breathing   

If you feel yourself yawning excessively, try deep breathing exercises through your nose. Your body may need more oxygen. A study also found that nasal breathing decreased contagious yawning completely in their research.

2. Get moving   

Breaking up a routine can also help stimulate your brain. Feelings of tiredness, boredom, and stress tend to make people yawn more. Excessive yawning may also stem from taking in too much caffeine or going through an opiate detox.

3. Cool yourself down  

You can also try taking a walk outside or finding a space with a cooler temperature. If you don’t have time to do this, drink some cool water or eat a chilled snack, such as fruit or baby carrots.

There are many theories behind why we yawn and why is it contagious. Extensive research is still going on to find out more about this involuntary body function.