Did you know that the average adult yawns up to 20 times per day? Yawning is a primal reflex and, weirdly, one that is incredibly contagious. Just writing this sentence has made me yawn four times, and that’s just from thinking about it.
So what’s going on in our bodies and brains when we are yawning, and why is it so hard to stop? Spoiler: it’s not because you’re tired.
Why do we yawn?
Yawning is instinctive
Yawning is a primitive reflex that’s not limited to humans: chimpanzees, dogs and cats also do it – even when they spend most of their time asleep on the sofa (maybe not the chimpanzees).
Typically, yawning is associated with boredom and tiredness, but according to hypnotherapist and yawn expert Dipti Tait, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Yawning is our brain’s way of getting more oxygen into our systems,” she explains. “Sometimes during a hypnotherapy session, a client will be deeply relaxed and alert at the same time. Their brain sends a signal to their pandicular system (the part of the nervous system that keeps us awake and alert) to yawn when it feels like it needs to move or pay attention and stay alert.”
Yawning cools the brain
Research by the University of Albany in New York has shown that yawning acts as an effective brain cooling mechanism. Our brains burn up to a third of our calorie consumption and, as a result, generate a lot of heat.
Much like a computer, the study shows that our brains operate more efficiently when they are cool; yawning is an effective way of increasing blood flow and intake of cooler air.
It’s actually a compliment
The same study, published in Evolutionary Psychology, also reveals that, contrary to popular belief, yawning is not a precursor to sleep but rather a way of mitigating the need to sleep. Tait agrees, adding that “when my clients yawn, I see it as a really good thing. It means they’re engaged and trying to process the information I’m providing them with”.
Spontaneous versus contagious yawns
Why does seeing someone yawn prompt the same reaction in us? Are we literally ‘catching’ a yawn?
According to sleep expert and founder of easysleepguide.com, Penny Albright, “it’s a good, healthy sign when someone catches a yawn”.
“Contagious yawning is a form of social mirroring, where we imitate the actions of others, and it’s linked to empathy and creating social bonds.”
Psychotherapist and executive coach Desiree Silverstone agrees, explaining that the neurons in our brains are responsible. “Recent research shows that humans have mirror neurons, a type of brain cell that helps us understand and empathise with the emotions of others,” she explains.
“When we see another person experience a feeling, or perform an action, the mirror neurons in our brains fire as if we were experiencing that emotion or performing the same action ourselves.”
Put simply, these neurons allow us to understand another person’s emotional state and relate to how they are feeling. And the more connected we are with someone, the more likely it is that our mirror neurons will be matched – meaning you’re more likely to catch a yawn from a family member than a stranger.
It keeps us safe
According to the University of Albany researchers, rather than mirroring someone’s sleep signals, when you catch a yawn you’re actually “participating in an ancient, hardwired ritual that might have evolved to help groups stay alert as a means of detecting danger”.
Why can’t we fight off yawning?
Researchers from the University of Nottingham have found that we’re pretty powerless to stop a yawn in its tracks, and trying to stifle it can increase the urge to yawn.
Their 2017 study, A Neural Basis for Contagious Yawning, shows that while our propensity for contagious yawning is completely individual and varies from person to person, our ability to resist catching a yawn is limited.
So if you can’t stop yawning in your next work meeting, there’s not much you can do about it.
And if you’re still feeling lazy for yawning so much, just take a look at your cat. “Think of a cat when it’s been sitting for a while, when it wants to move, the first thing it will do is stretch and yawn,” says Tait. “This is a wake-up call for the body to engage itself and a signal for the mind to pay attention.”