Why do we yawn?

Whether it’s from pure tiredness to boredom to simply just because the other person next to you yawned, yawning is an uncontrollable urge we’re overcome with on a daily basis. But have you ever wonder exactly why we do it? I mean honestly why is it that we feel the compelled need to open our mouths wide and let out a bunch of air making ourselves look as unattractive as possible? It’s a very strange thing us humans do. According to Janet Fang who wrote Why do we yawn? explains that yawning is linked to thermoregulation aka yawning cools the brain down. Fang writes, “Sleep cycles, cortical arousal, and stress are all associated with fluctuations in brain temperature.” Fang describes a study that did a study on both rats and humans. In these studies it showed when either the rat or human yawned there was an increase in brain temperature but followed by a decrease in temperature afterwards. To find this so called “thermal window” Jorg Massen from University of Vienna and  Andrew Gallup of SUNY Oneonta  measured the frequency of 120 yawns of random pedestrians walking the streets of Vienna, Austria during the winter (1.4 degrees celsius) and the summer (19.4 degrees celsius).  Gallup and Massen also look at 18 people and recored if and how many times they yawned during the experiment they were conducting. “There were also questions about sex, age, how long they’ve been outdoors, and how much they slept; some of these factors have been correlated to yawning in previous studies,” explains Fang.  Gallup and Massen viewed their results once they completed their experiment. “The difference between self-reported yawning in the two seasons was noticeable: 18.3 percent of participants yawned in the winter, while 41.7 percent reported yawning in the summer,” says Fang. However, Gallup and Massen compared their results to a similar study done in in Tucso, Arizona and their results were the complete opposite. So what exactly does this meant then? It seems that neither seasons nor the amount of daylight hours played a part in yawning but rather contagious yawning is the main culprit of the “thermal zone.” People were more likely to yawn at temperatures ranging around 20 degrees celsius. According to Matthew Campbell, a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University explains on Smithsonian Mag that “When we see someone smile or frown, we imitate them to feel happiness or sadness. We catch yawns for the same reasons—we see a yawn, so we yawn. It isn’t a deliberate attempt to empathize with you. It’s just a byproduct of how our bodies and brains work,” Campbell says.Smithsonian Mag says that 60 to 70 percent of yawns are contagious to people. The magazine even says “If people see photos or footage of or read about yawning, the majority will spontaneously do the same.” Pretty crazy stuff, huh? Steven Platek, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College did a study on it and reported, “The phenomenon occurs most often in individuals who score high on measures of empathic understanding. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, he found that areas of the brain activated during contagious yawning, the posterior cingulate and precuneus, are involved in processing the our own and others’ emotions.” It seems that yawning is a thing that we’ll never be able to escape and our own body’s reaction other humans to stay connected and possibly even a phenomenon we’ll never be able to fully understand. 




1 thought on “Why do we yawn?

  1. Kylie Dachowski

    This is really interesting because I’ve always wondered why yawning is contagious. Whenever one of my friends yawned I would yawn right after. Even typing the word yawn is making me yawn.

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