Yawning… it always strikes when you least expect it, and stifling a yawn really is as difficult as it feels. Just like coughing and urinating, your body finds it harder to stop doing it when you tell it it can’t.
But why do we yawn, and why do we catch yawns from other people? Are yawns really contagious, or are we imagining it?! Here’s everything you’ve ever wondered about yawning and the questions scientists are still unable to answer.
Why do we yawn?
People yawn for many reasons, and yawning has remained one of medicine's greatest mysteries. The causes of yawning can include:
To wake up. When we experience sleepiness, we yawn. Some say it’s your brain needing extra oxygen, but in fact, it’s the stretching function that does more to wake you up than the deep breath. A yawn stretches your face and, neck and lungs, giving your body a sense of renewed energy, helping to combat tiredness.
To stimulate the brain. You may also yawn when you’re bored or uninterested in something or someone, as a result of your brain craving stimulation.
Yawning has been proven in all vertebrates, too, adding to the theories that yawning is an involuntary action in social animals. What you may not know is that babies can even yawn in utero!
To cool the brain: some say a yawn is brain cooling mechanism, and that your body is using the deep inhalation of air to cool your brain body temperature.
Why is yawning contagious?
Contagious yawning is a phenomenon that's baffled scientists and researchers for decades. Several other mammals have exhibited act of yawning, but only dogs and wolves share our ability to catch someone else's yawn.
The main theories surrounding contagious yawning are based around time of day, and even the level of empathy a person has.
Originally, researchers thought that specific times of day made catching a yawn more likely. Instead, they've turned their attention to the concept of empathy. The more empathetic a person is, the more likely they are to yawn when exposed to someone else yawning.
Can you yawn too often?
Frequent yawning is usually nothing to worry about, though in rare cases it can be a sign of a brain or heart condition. The vagus nerve connects the throat and the abdomen to the brain, and can interact with blood vessels and cause excessive yawning. While uncommon, it may indicate a sleep disorder, brain condition or heart problems. Seek medical attention if your frequency of yawning is worrying you. You may also experience excessive yawning if you're over tired. This could be as simple as changing your lifestyle to get more sleep, but it could also point to sleep apnoea.
How to Yawn Less
If you're finding yourself holding back a yawn more often than you'd like, the first step is to get a more restful sleep at night. Start by overhauling your sleep environment, and shutting off earlier in the evening. Disconnect from your devices and commence an evening routine, before hopping into a supportive mattress, breathable bedding and a pillow that properly contours to your cervical spine.