Why Do We Yawn?

Have You Ever Wondered...

  • Why do we yawn?
  • What causes yawning?
  • Why is yawning contagious?

Did the picture above make you want to yawn? Yawning is something that occurs so frequently, yet many of us question why we do it. Additionally, many of us wonder why yawning seems to be so contagious. To start off, almost everything with a spine yawns. This can include anything from humans to dogs to even snakes. As humans, we yawn for the very first time when we are fetuses. Yawning is simply defined as thoughtlessly opening our mouths and inhaling deeply. Although it is such a simple task, there is much more too it than the eye can see.

So why exactly do we yawn? Studies have revealed that we yawn as a way of cooling down our brains. We do this to keep our brains from overheating. Yawning increases our blood flow, our heart rate, and the use of facial muscles. All of these factors help to refresh and cool down our brains. Now, many of you may be pondering why our brains get hot in the first place. The answer is that exhaustion and lack of sleep increase our brain temperature; so yawning is an involuntary response mechanism that serves to stabilize this temperature. This is why we constantly yawn late at night and early in the morning when we have not gotten enough sleep. Yawning helps our brains to function with maximum efficiency.

If yawning is simply a way of cooling down our brains, then why do we yawn after watching someone else yawn? Research has found that we mimic other people yawning due to empathy. We tend to identify with others’ emotions when they are around. With this being said, we are more likely to copy the yawns of people who are genetically closer to us. So, you are more likely to copy your father’s yawn than a random woman’s yawn on a subway. Although we begin yawning when we are fetuses, we do not begin mimicking yawns until we are about four-years-old. Furthermore, our mirror neurons are activated by visually observing yawning. These mirror neurons start operating when we learn and relate to others. Just as we laugh at others’ laughter, we yawn when others yawn as a form of social bonding.

Try it out:

How long do you think you can last without yawning while watching others yawn? Let’s try it out! Your first activity to try with family and friends is to watch the video below and see if you can resist yawning. This is a challenging and fun activity to attempt with your peers. Let’s see how much empathy you have; put those mirror neurons to the test! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJXX4vF6Zh0

Are you unsure whether or not we truly yawn to decrease our brain temperature? Well, it’s time to figure it out! For your second activity, place a heating pack on your head and see if your yawning increases with the added heat. Complete this activity right before bed when you are getting sleepy. Or, you can even re-watch the video from Activity 1 to see if you mimic the yawns more with the heating pad on your head.

For the last activity, we are going to test out the notions of mirror neurons and social bonding. All you need to do for this activity is demonstrate some fake yawns when you are around a group of people. The easiest way to do this is when you sit down for dinner with your family or when you are at lunch with a group of friends. After yawning, take note of whether or not your peers mimic your yawn. This is a great way to see how contagious yawns can truly be.

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