Yawning has been observed and researched for many years, but there is still much to figure out. It has remained a mystery all along, but there are some theories about it. Scientists believe they are beginning to figure out why humans yawn and if it is contagious.
The definition and the mechanics of it are well known, of course. It is a natural bodily reflex that includes taking a deep breath in, opening your jaw wide, and quickly and forcefully exhaling. Yawning causes a feeling of relaxation, stretching of the eardrums, and eyes to close tightly.
One theory of why people yawn is that they need oxygen, bringing more oxygen into your body. This theory isn’t well-supported, however, and many researchers believe it isn’t true. It seems to have more to do with brain temperature, empathy, and other factors.
Scientists Explain Why We Yawn
While all of this is still being researched, scientists have discovered some reasons why people yawn. They have also done work to figure out if the reflex is contagious, as it is widely believed to be.
1 – It Cools Your Brain
Thermal images show that yawning might help to cool the human brain. When you inhale deeply during a yawn, it pulls cool air into your mouth and body. This then cools the blood that goes to the brain.
This theory could explain when you yawn more when you have a fever. If your brain is hot and this reflex cools it down, it’s only expected that you yawn more at this time.
This seems to occur anytime the brain is too hot, not only when there is a fever present. It removes hot blood from around the brain and replaces it with cool blood.
Another thing to consider is how often you yawn in the winter compared to the summer. In the winter, most people yawn quite a bit less than they do in the summer. This further supports the theory that it happens when your brain needs cooled.
2 – You Feel Stressed
High levels of cortisol can trigger a yawn, and cortisol levels increase when you are stressed. So, if you are feeling stressed, you’ll notice that you yawn more often.
3 – To Change Your State of Awareness
Your body has to function in different ways at different times of the day. Sometimes when you yawn, it is a way for your body to change its state. Then, your body will be able to function accordingly.
When you yawn at night time or before bed, it is your body’s way of preparing for rest. If you yawn when you are bored, it’s a sign that your body is shifting to a lower level of alertness. Likewise, if you yawn after exercising, it’s because your body is changing from high energy to low energy.
4 – Communication
Humans communicate with one another in physical ways that they don’t even realize. One way this is done is through a yawn. It is believed to be an unspoken way of indicating boredom or a need for sleep. Research suggests that this might be the most “contagious” yawn of all.
5 – To Make Up for Elevation Changes
When you are on an airplane or driving up a mountain, this natural reflex is a way to equalize ear pressure. You will likely do it involuntarily and continue to do it on purpose when you realize it works.
6 – To Show Empathy
If you have social empathy, you will likely yawn at the same time as other people. This happens when you are reading about it or talking about it, as well. Even the mention of a yawn can trigger the reflex.
While this could be true for everyone, those who are more empathetic will be more likely to yawn when someone else does. It is also believed that the closer you are to someone emotionally, the more likely you are to yawn when they do.
7 – To Keep You Alert
Many people believe that a yawn is an indication of sleepiness, but this is not entirely accurate. Instead, it is believed that a yawn is a way to keep you alert. Since you likely aren’t very alert when you are exhausted, this is probably why it continually happens when you are tired.
When you yawn, your heart rate increases, which is why it can make you more alert. It only works for a short time, so you’ll notice it frequently happens during these times. This is also why you tend to fidget and stretch during this because those are other ways to increase alertness.
When you yawn just after waking up, it helps you become alert and ready for the day. It will stretch the lungs and tissues and help the body flex the muscles before starting to move. Plus, it forces the blood toward your head, which is sure to make you more alert.
Another way this natural reflex helps keep you alert is by keeping you more in-tune with your surroundings. When you yawn, muscles in your ears are stimulated, which leads to greater hearing sensitivity. You will be able to hear things you wouldn’t have otherwise heard.
Plus, the activation of those muscles will increase your range of movement. Plus, you will squeeze your eyes shut and open them back up during a yawn, making your eyesight clearer.
So, Is Yawning Contagious?
Now that you know what the scientists say about why you yawn, it’s time to learn if it is contagious. You have probably yawned when you saw someone else yawn, and this likely even occurs often. Plus, you may have yawned while reading this since even the thought of a yawn can trigger one.
As you have probably already guessed, the answer is yes. Yawning is contagious, but only for some people and during certain times.
Empathetic people are generally the only ones who yawn when someone else does. The situation has to allow for it, as well. If someone is angry or feeling other negative emotions, they may not be as empathetic as they normally would be.
Another factor that contributes to this is how close you are to someone emotionally. You will be more likely to “catch” a contagious yawn from someone you are close to rather than a stranger.
If you still aren’t convinced that a yawn is contagious, try watching a video of people yawning. Chances are, if you are empathetic, it’ll make you yawn at least once. Then, pay attention to when the people you are close to yawn and see if you yawn, as well.
What to Do if You are Yawning too Much
If you think that you yawn too much, you should pay attention to that. While it may be nothing, there are medical reasons for excessive yawning. These reasons include:
- sleep apnea
- side effects of medications
- heart failure or bleeding around the heart
- a brain tumor (although this is uncommon)
- liver failure
- multiple sclerosis
Before you panic, however, you should think about your lifestyle. If any aspects of your life could be causing the excess, you should try changing those first. Normally, it’s a common and easy fix, but if the following ideas don’t take care of it, you should see your doctor.
How to Stop Yawning So Much
1 – Practice Deep Breathing Techniques
In a way, this goes back to the idea that a need for oxygen causes a yawn. While that idea has been debunked, it is still commonly believed to be linked to it. Even though oxygen doesn’t seem to play a role, deep breathing still helps.
One study even published results that showed nasal breathing helps decrease how often and frequently you yawn. Many people suggest breathing deeply through your nose when you notice you have been yawning excessively.
2 – Get More Sleep
If you have to yawn to continually stay alert during the day, you probably need to sleep more. It’s easier to be alert when you have had enough rest. Your body won’t need to do this natural reflex to get you to be more alert if you already are.
Try to limit caffeine in the hours before bed, and avoiding alcohol may help, too. You can also set a sleep schedule for yourself, but you have to stick to it to be effective. Getting more exercise and having a comfortable place to sleep will help, too.
3 – Take a Break
If you notice you’re yawning too much, take a break and move around. It will stimulate your brain and help you become focused and alert again.
4 – Cool Down
You will yawn less if you aren’t hot, so make sure to stay cool whenever you can. Drink water or other healthy cold beverages when you are outside on a hot day. Plus, try to keep your indoor environment cool.
Yawning is a natural bodily reflex, but most of the details remain unknown. While scientists and researchers have been working on it for many years, there is still much to learn.
Even so, the information that scientists have given is pretty incredible. They are beginning to understand why we yawn, and it’s been confirmed that it is contagious. With these facts, there will be many more studies to follow in the future.