Have you ever tried to conceal your yawn when you see someone yawning and succeeded? Almost never! Yawning starts in humans as early as 20 weeks after conception but surprisingly such a frequent and age-old action still has no solid reason behind its occurrence.
A yawn is a coordinated movement of the thoracic muscles in the chest, diaphragm, larynx in the throat and palate in the mouth common across most vertebrates, even birds and fish. In simple terms, it is an involuntary action that involves opening the mouth and taking a long, deep breath of air lasting for around 5 seconds. When we yawn, our facial muscles stretch, our heads tilt back, our eyes can close or even water, saliva is secreted and the Eustachian tubes of the middle year open. Mostly occurring when a person is tired or sleepy, yawning is an action that is indicative of even hunger, arousal or boredom. We yawn as soon as we get up in the morning just before going to bed or just because we witnessed someone else perform this reflex act! Even our travel to high-altitude regions or mountainous areas stimulate us to yawn forcefully to get rid of the uneasy feeling in our ears (Eustachian tubes open).
An Ignored Phenomenon
Although the most common act by humans, yawning did not get its due respect and study until the 1980s when it proved to be a valuable one for assessing dopaminergic activity and the pharmacological properties of new drugs.
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, hypothesized that yawning is an exhaustion of fumes before fever strikes. But many scientists were apprehensive of this explanation and started challenging it by the 17th and 18th centuries. Some felt that yawning was a way of improving alertness and motor function by increasing blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen in the blood. They even justified the act of yawning by athletes before playing the sport, but recent research nullifies these claims disproving any increase in heart rate, sweating or electrical activities in the brain.
Though history defines yawning as an expression of tiredness or boredom, research and studies show that paratroopers yawn before skydiving, dogs yawn before attacking its prey and even a 20-week-old fetus yawns inside the mother’s womb which disproves it to be a mere act of boredom. There must be an important underlying physiological reason that is yet to be unraveled.
Interesting Reasons to Justify the Yawning Phenomenon
Robert Provine, acknowledged as the pioneer in yawning research quotes that “Yawning may have the dubious distinction of being the least understood, common human behavior.” He is a neuroscientist who explores areas of science that are seldom researched-hiccups, coughs, sneeze -and yawns. According to Provine, yawning is an indication of changing behavioral states such as wakefulness to sleep, sleep to wakefulness, boredom to alertness and so on.
Other studies associate yawning with brain temperatures. When our brains become warmer than the homeostatic temperature, we yawn automatically to cool the brain. Cool blood from other parts of the body flow into the brain and warm blood circulates out of the brain through the jugular vein.
Winter days and chilled nights make us yawn often than usual, if one had noticed it. Even research suggests that outer temperature affects the frequency of yawning-warm outside temperatures witness less-frequent yawns.
Yawning is contagious to the extent that seeing, hearing, thinking or even reading about yawning can make a person yawn. I hope you are not yawning right now after reading this! There are several reasons listed behind this act:
A recent study shows that more a person is requested to resist yawning greater is the yearning to yawn. However hard one might try to resist yawning, it can only change the way we yawn but it will never change our inclination to yawn. Contagious yawning is a common form of echophenomena, an automatic imitation of another’s words or actions. Surprisingly, it is not only humans who have become preys to contagious yawning but chimpanzees and dogs do it too! Basically, contagious yawning does not occur in species that do not recognize themselves in mirrors.
Evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup describes contagious yawning as a’ primitive empathetic mechanism related to mental state attribution.’ Yawning activates the motor imitation, empathy and social behavior parts of the brain. Neurons in the brain activate your emotions and you feel what the person is experiencing. These neurons command your brain to perform the action even if you don’t feel the need to do so.
Too Much of Yawning is Good for Nothing, In fact Dangerous
Yawning is a harmless affair but too much of yawning can be an indication of an underlying disorder that requires medical attention. The vagus nerve, the nerve connecting the throat and abdomen to the brain, might cause excessive yawning due to its interaction with the blood vessels (vasovagal reaction). This response is an indication of a sleep disorder, brain condition or can also be a sign of heart diseases such as heart attack or problems with the aorta. Certain brain problems such as tumors, epilepsy, stroke or multiple sclerosis and disorders associated with excess daytime sleepiness can also cause excess yawning. If you experience excessive yawning it is better to meet your physician and get it checked out.
The article is about yawning, contagious yawning and how the brain rolls out processes to make you yawn. I am sure that most of you must have yawned at least once or twice while reading through the article but hope that the phenomenon was due to the repeated information about yawning and not because the article was boring 😊
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.