Why do people yawn?


Why do we yawn? Are you bored or just plain tired?

Ever had an irresistible urge to yawn at an inappropriate moment?

Perhaps your boss is explaining the end-of-year financials. Or you’re being lectured at by your mother about why you should work harder and save more money.

Try as you might, you just can’t hold back that yawn.

What is a yawn?

According to Wikipedia, “A yawn is a reflex consisting of the simultaneous inhalation of air and the stretching of the eardrums, followed by an exhalation of breath.”

Hippocrates, the 4th Century father of medicine, thought that yawning got rid of ‘bad air’ and flushed the brain with ‘good air’. It seemed like a good theory at the time, but it doesn’t quite hold up today.   

We usually associate yawning with 3 things:

  1. Tiredness
  2. Boredom
  3. Lack of fresh air

Over the years, there’s been a lot of research about why people yawn. There was even an International Conference on Yawning held in Paris in 2010!

There are two main theories about why people yawn:

Theory #1: Yawning cools your brain

Researchers at Princeton University have a theory that yawning helps to cool the brain. Their research involved parrots, rats and humans. Interestingly, all three species produced similar results.

Here’s how it works:

  1. When you yawn, your jaw stretches, increasing the blood flow to the neck, head and face.
  2. The deep intake of breath during a yawn forces the downward flow of spinal fluid and blood from the brain.
  3. The cool air you breathe in cools those fluids.

They also found that people tended to yawn more in cooler weather. But their theory remains controversial.

Theory #2: Yawning shows you care  

Research physician, Dr Adrian G. Guggisberg, isn’t convinced about the cooling theory. He thinks yawning is a form of communication.

"The more people are susceptible to contagious yawning, the better their social competence and empathy," Guggisberg says.

Even though yawning has been the subject of research for many years, an inconclusive explanation for why we yawn is still elusive.

A 2017 study concluded that the connection between contagious yawning and empathy was not proven. Their recommendation? More research!

Yawning is contagious

In a social setting, it’s often interpreted as the height of rudeness to yawn while someone is speaking to you. Yet it’s clear that yawning is a reflex that can’t be helped and shouldn’t be interpreted negatively.

There’s even a name for involuntary, contagious yawning: alolomimea.

It seems yawning is common to just about any species including apes, rodents and humans. But researchers found that contagious yawning is absent in animals that don’t recognise themselves in mirrors.

Is there a ‘right’ way to yawn?

Now that you’ve read what the scientists have to say about yawning, you might be ready for Gwyneth Paltrow’s instructions on how to ‘lean into’ a yawn. Her Goop blog describes two ways to ‘optimise the yawning reflex’.

Of course, one way to avoid excessive yawning at inappropriate times, is to get a good night’s sleep – and that’s best done on one of our super comfortable SleepX mattresses. Check out our range of mattresses and pillows for the best night’s sleep you’ve had in ages.