Why do we yawn?

Yawning has earned a bad rap over the years as a sign of boredom or rudeness’but it’s actually your body’s coolest trick! Here’s the science behind yawning and how it can benefit your health

Why do we yawn?

Source: Excerpted from Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain

Let’s say you’re sitting in a meeting at work, and you feel a yawn coming on. (We’ve all been there, haven’t we?) If you’re like most people, you probably try to stifle it. And if that doesn’t work, you try to discreetly hide the yawn behind your hand. After all, yawning is rude and a sign of boredom or fatigue’neither of which you want to display when your boss is outlining a new project. Right?

Wrong, actually. (About what yawning means, not about your intentions toward your boss!) Your yawn isn’t a sign that your boss is putting you to sleep. Rather, it’s a signal that your body is revving up your brain so that you can more efficiently process what she is saying.

Many people believe that yawning in the presence of others is disrespectful. The truth is yawning has unfairly earned a bad rap. It’s actually the body’s way of rejuvenating the brain so that it can function more effectively.

In scientific terms, a yawn is characterized by an inhalation of air that stretches the eardrums, followed by an exhalation. Yawns are occasionally accompanied by a stretch’for the curious, that’s called a ‘pandiculation.’ Sometimes yawns are reflexive, and sometimes they are intentionally self-induced. And they always entail much more than just a wide-open mouth.

Chances are, you’ve never given your own yawns a second thought. However, they may deserve one! Read on to learn how yawning impacts the brain, and why you should consider doing so more often. (And yes…it is possible to yawn on command!)

Yawning increases mental efficiency

It’s no secret that it takes a lot of energy to stay focused when you’re engaged in concentrated activity. The mind has a tendency to wander and to slip from the task at hand, and this is when you might find yourself yawning. What you’re actually doing is stimulating a neural area of the brain that plays a major role in being more conscious and self-reflective, and that also aids in relaxation, alertness, and maintaining a good memory. Any time you breathe deeply, your brain waves slow down and your muscles get the message to relax.

The next time you’re stressed out and trying to maintain your focus, consciously take a moment to yawn every 20 minutes or so, and then sit back and relax. You’ll notice a difference.

Yawning helps the brain maintain balance

Research has found that yawning helps cool down the overactive brain as it attempts to regulate its temperature and metabolism.

In fact, yawning increases when people are engaged in difficult mental tasks‘something you’ve no doubt noticed in your own life. Yawning staves off sleep! This revelation might be the most surprising of all, since most of us operate under the impression that yawning makes us sleepier. Once again, science debunks conventional wisdom. Yawning helps contract the facial muscles, which forces blood through cerebral blood vessels to the brain’and this, scientists say, may function to increase alertness. Thus, yawning may reduce sleepiness as it reflects a mechanism that maintains attention.

Yawning helps you ‘reset’ yourself

That’s right’it’s almost like pushing the ‘reset’ button on an electronic device. When you yawn, you help regulate your body’s circadian rhythms, or the roughly 24-hour cycle of human behavior and biological activity. This is true for babies, patients coming out of comas, and partygoers who are returning home from a night out. Yawning also increases when people are in the midst of a change from inactivity to activity, and vice versa.  

Yawning really does help you reset your internal clock. In scientific terms, it arouses your neuromuscular wiring and creates a harmonious progression in the brain stem. When you’re traveling by plane and changing time zones, remember to yawn to help reset your circadian rhythms. Yawning will help to reduce the effects of jet lag.

Yawning can lift your mood’and maybe even save your marriage

When you yawn, your dopamine levels rise. This activates oxytocin, or pleasure and relationship-bonding chemicals. The more these chemicals are activated, the more frequently you yawn. Yawning is also contagious, because it triggers the mirror neurons that literally prompt you to reflect another person’s behavior or emotional state. People who are on antidepressants may experience yawning more often, especially in the first three months of taking the SSRIs.  

It’s cheesy, but I always say that the people who yawn together stay together! In stressful situations with your friends and loved ones, simply stop the conversation and yawn together several times. If nothing else, you may get a few laughs with each other. And that’s great, because laughter is pretty close to yawning in terms of its effects!

In other words, yawn away’and don’t feel self-conscious about it.

Okay, if you yawn and stretch exuberantly while the CEO is talking you might not get the warmest reaction. Just be sure to follow up your faux pas with a quick explanation of yawning’s many physiological and psychological gifts. Your body knows what it needs to function at its best’so relax and let it work.

Patt Lind-Kyle is an author, therapist, speaker, trainer, and consultant. She is a former professor at Foothill College, and founder of a learning assessment company that applies neuro-monitoring tools for stress management, health, and peak performance.