Just writing the title is enough to make us yawn. Similar to seeing a friend yawn, seeing the word in writing can make you feel compelled. It’s weird, right?
Yawning is a mystery, so we decided to find out more about it. If nothing else, to learn how to stop those involuntary yawns that happen when we're meant to be paying attention, like in work meetings, when listening to a friend, or in the middle of a long lecture.
If you've ever found yourself wondering why you're yawning when you aren't tired, or when you're actually paying attention, read on for our research-based explanation.
So, what is yawning, and why do we do it?
A yawn is an involuntary motion that involves us opening our mouth widely, taking in a bunch of air, and then exhaling. The entire process takes an average of about 6 seconds. It’s not uncommon to also close our eyes for part of the six seconds, and sometimes our eyes will water.
While we know that part of the reason we do it is because we’re tired, it’s not the only reason. Theories abound ranging from a lack of oxygen in the brain to sheer boredom. And some scientists have claimed that we yawn in response to other people in our environment who have “status.” In the caveman days, when the alpha of the group would yawn, it was a signal that it was time for bed.
All of these theories have some legitimacy, but let’s separate fact from fiction.
Causes of Yawning
A Change of State
As your brain transitions to different times of day or activities, it may induce a yawn. It’s like your body’s internal signal telling you something’s up. For example, you do yawn when it’s time for bed as your body prepares for sleep. And, you tend to also do it when you’re bored because your body is going from concentration and alertness to distraction and lower energy.
On a side note, that’s why you should get up and take breaks or walk around every 90 minutes or so when you’re working on something. If you catch yourself yawning, that’s your internal clock telling you to get up and move around.
At night, we become less alert, and that can encourage a yawn. Even though there’s a lot of mystery surrounding this bodily function, we do know that certain chemicals in our brain can induce a yawn. One of these chemicals, adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), spikes at night, and that’s one potential reason that we do it right before bed.
While a yawn doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bored, it doesn’t rule it out, either. We know that when our brain isn’t properly stimulated, its temperature drops, and that can encourage yawning.
The act of yawning increases your heart rate, so one theory is that if you’re tired, this short activity can give you a quick burst of energy. If you find yourself doing it at inopportune times during the day, your body may be trying to wake you up.
Cooling the Brain
Do you find yourself yawning a lot when you’re studying or concentrating? This is because all that brain activity raises its temperature, and opening your mouth widely while inhaling and exhaling air cools it down. When you open up your mouth widely, you increase blood flow and circulate fluid faster. Weird, but it works.
Once upon a time, humans didn’t speak in actual words. Crazy, right? Instead, we used a variety of signals to communicate, and yawning was one of them. In our early days on this planet, this is how we communicated that we were tired or bored, and that behavior seems to have persisted at some level.
It turns out there is some truth to the lack of oxygen theory, as scientists have discovered that yawning occurs more frequently when our blood needs an oxygen boost. Again, the faster heartbeat induced by a yawn comes into play here, and it pushes more oxygen through our system.
Is Yawning Contagious?
You already know the answer to this one, right?
It’s one of the most contagious conditions around, second only to laughing. Scientists have discovered that around half of us will yawn just by seeing it on video! We can even pass yawns back and forth between different species of animals. More often than not, when I yawn, my dog does too—and vice versa! There’s also evidence suggesting that the closer relationship we have with someone, the more likely we are to mirror their yawn. Considering that my dog and I are best friends, it’s no wonder we share our yawning tendencies.
And remember when I confessed to yawning when I wrote the title of this article? It turns out that I’m not crazy because it’s also true that reading or even thinking about it can cause you to let one out.
How to Prevent Yawning
If you’re getting enough sleep but still find yourself the victim of frequent and uncontrollable yawns, you may need to work on your breathing techniques. Shallow breathing can deprive your brain of oxygen and trigger a reaction to stimulate production.
Literally. Remember when I said that yawning cools down the brain? Well, if you proactively make yourself cold, you’re less likely to feel the urge to yawn. Try applying an ice pack to your head or neck, open up a window, crank up the air conditioner, or grab a popsicle.
Fresh air can cure a variety of maladies. It’s invigorating. Plus, a change of scenery can stimulate your mind and stave off boredom. Another reason this strategy helps is that if you’ve been sitting in one spot for too long, it can lead to fatigue. Getting up and going outside can help you feel refreshed.
If the weather’s not cooperative and going outside isn’t an option, a quick stretch can do the trick. Remember, your body is always communicating with you despite how odd its actions may seem. Even if all you do is stand up for a minute or two to stretch your legs, you should notice a distinct and immediate improvement.
Not drinking enough water can make you feel tired. Grab a glass of water to get a quick energy boost.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does yawning say about my body language?
If you find yourself yawning during a meeting or conversation, most people will interpret this body language as an indicator that you’re either bored or tired. Depending on how openly you do it, it will likely signal to the people around you which is the more likely case.
For example, depending on how subtle the behavior is and what other people around you know about your personality and lifestyle, they’ll be more likely to assume it’s one or the other.
Is it spiritual in any way?
This logic isn’t as widely accepted, but there is speculation that yawns are the spirit “trying to relax.” Susan Diamond of Prayables reasons that babies do it in the womb, even though they’re breathing oxygen. In a game of word association, she says that in Hebrew, the words for breath and spirit are the same (nishama). Kind of odd, isn’t it?
Why do some people do it loudly?
Pure rudeness. I’m actually serious. There’s no known need or benefit to being loud about it. I equate it to people who are loud chewers. It’s inconsiderate and unnecessary. Don’t be that guy. No one likes that guy.
Should I be worried about excessive yawning?
It won’t kill you, but it can be an indication of an underlying issue. Ask yourself if you’re getting enough sleep. If you’re sleep-deprived, you may find that you feel the need to yawn often.
Sometimes medications are at fault because one of their side effects could include drowsiness. Antidepressants, antihistamines, and a handful of pain medications can make you feel fatigued, which can lead to this involuntary reflex.
If your yawning is accompanied by other systems like brain fog or isolated pain, these could be indicators of an underlying health issue like a sleep disorder, brain condition, or heart problems. Without going into too many details, the root cause may have something to do with the vagus nerve (pronounced like Las Vegas, but not nearly as much of a party). If you’re experiencing other out of the ordinary symptoms, you should consult with your doctor.
It seems like the more we learn about ourselves and our bodies, the more we realize we still don’t know, and yawning is a classic example of this. At least we have a lot of logical theories, though! Out of curiosity, did you yawn while reading this article? If so, how many times?
- Why do we yawn? – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20382180
- The thermoregulatory theory of yawning: what we know from over 5 years of research – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3534187/
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.
She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.