What Does Yawning Actually Mean?

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We all yawn, and we probably all yawn a lot more frequently than we think. It something that we do when we wake up, when we’re bored, when we’re tired. We often stretch and yawn, or try to continue talking and yawn! But although there are many theories floating around about why we yawn, most people have absolutely no idea even though scientists have counted up to twenty theories as to why we do it. So why do we yawn?

Firstly, there is the theory that it is to stretch out our muscles. When we yawn, we are actually allowing a perfectly normal reflex take over our jaws, and this yawn both stretches our jaw muscles and allows our eardrums to stretch. In the entirety of our body, there are few muscles that are used as much as our mouths and throats, and just like we need to stretch out our legs after a run, we occasionally need to stretch out our mouths.

One aspect of yawning that does not seem to support this theory is the fact that yawning is quite literally contagious. It has been proved in dozens of studies that when we see one person yawn, we often cannot help but yawn as well. Even if we do not want to, that reflex takes over our jaws, and before we know it, we are yawning along too. In fact, this can even happen when we do not even see the person who is yawning; it has been demonstrated that if we speak to someone on the phone and we hear them yawn, we are very likely to yawn as well.

There is, of course, another theory. This is that yawning was something that we used to do, thousands of years ago, to make sure that all of the people around us were awake and alert. Because danger was always surrounding us, we humans not only needed to make sure that we kept ourselves awake, but make sure that those around us were also awake, as it would take several people to fight off a wild animal. Yawning stretches our mouths, and reminds us that we need to pay attention and that is why yawning is contagious.

Another theory, on the other hand, kind of disproves that one as well! If yawning is something that we humans have developed in order to keep ourselves alert, then why during a study did twenty one dogs out of twenty nine yawn after seeing a stranger yawn in front of them? In order to make sure that it truly was the yawn that sparked them off, the scientists made the strangers open their mouths wide in front of the dogs: and not one time did that make the dogs yawn.

Throughout the animal kingdom, we have found animals that yawn, although we have managed to discover why it is that they yawn. Baboons will often yawn but to frighten their enemies by showing off their rather impressive big teeth. Guinea pigs can yawn, and they also do it in order to frighten potential challengers. One species of fish, called the Siamese fighting fish, can yawn, but strangely they only do it when they see another Siamese fighting fish, or a mirror. Nothing else, and no other species, can provoke them into yawning.

One group of scientists believe that yawning actually provides a very realistic benefit for humans. They believe that yawning is a way of keeping our brains cool; rather like when a computer gets too hot and they cannot work as well, our brains cannot work at their optimum level if they are too hot. Through a study, they discovered that people with ice packs strapped to their heads do not yawn when they see videos of other people yawning.

Whatever the reason why people yawn, we have been doing it for hundreds of years. In fact, the very word ‘yawn’ is over one thousand five hundred years old, and comes from the Old English work ‘ginian’, which means ‘gape’. But despite all of this scientific research which seems to suggest that yawning is a biological event that occurs, there is more and more research that seems to suggest that instead of just yawning, we can also learn to yawn. Social yawning, as it is called, means that there are some occasions when our bodies want to yawn, and some occasions when our minds want to yawn.

There is much evidence to prove this; for example, children that are younger than six years old do not yawn when they see other people yawn, but they do yawn when they are tired. We are also much more likely to yawn when we see our friends and family yawn, and much less likely to yawn when we see a stranger yawn. This suggests that a huge amount of yawning is not the act itself, but a means of joining in with the actions that the people that we are emotionally close to are doing.

Yawning is not a very popular thing. Many people can become offended if someone yawns in their presence, and believe it to be a sign of boredom. There are rules in many countries against yawning in court, which could lead to a penalty for contempt of court! So however you decide to yawn, just think on this: people have been writing on and wondering about yawns for thousands of years and we are still no closer to the truth.

1 Comment

  1. Medina

    This is something I’ve always worried about. I’ve read about it a lot but there’s no sure answer. Thanks for posting this.

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