You’re sitting in a waiting room. Maybe you arrived a little early for a doctor appointment, or an oil change, or any of those instances where you might find yourself in a quiet room with nothing but a low-volume TV and a spread of dog-eared magazines. You glance over your options of something to read, but all the news is a few months behind and, besides, Classic Tractor Magazine isn’t exactly what you would call a riveting read. You check your watch and, after a minute, you yawn.
Have you ever wondered why we yawn? What is the point of a yawn? That very subject has been of interest to mankind for centuries. And, after countless theories, hypotheses, studies, and observations, we are still utterly baffled by it.
However, there are some things that we do know.
One of the most interesting discoveries scientists have made about yawning (scientifically known as oscitation) is that we do it even before we come into this world. Doctors and researchers have noticed that fetuses in the womb—some even as young as 11 weeks—yawn. Some experts believe that neonatal yawning may be linked to the development of a baby’s brain and that yawning in the womb is a sign of the brain beginning to exhibit activity-dependent mental activity.
But what does yawning do, exactly?
Experts do not have any concrete theories, but in terms of the effects a yawn has on the body, scientists believe that the wide opening of the mouth that happens with big yawns helps to bring more oxygen into the body. Some believe that the need to yawn may be explained by an imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. Yawning helps bring in more oxygen and, when we exhale, we release excess carbon dioxide.
One of the most popular recent examples of this comes from the 2010 Winter Olympics, when US skater Apolo Ohno yawned before competing in the 1000 meter speed skating race that would come to net him his seventh Olympic medal.
Ohno later explained that yawning helped him to feel more prepared to compete.
If yawning does have a physiological explanation, then why is it that yawns are so contagious? In fact, just thinking about yawning right now has probably got you doing it yourself!
One recent line of thought poses the idea that contagious yawning is an empathic response. In essence, we yawn when others yawn because we inherently relate to other creatures, both human and animal. Oddly enough, more social or pack-minded animals like chimpanzees and dogs have also shown a tendency to catch a yawn from other animals.
Like with many things, what we’ve learned about our own yawning comes from looking at the members of the animal kingdom.
Some theorists believe that yawning may have developed in animals to help keep them more alert and aware of both their surroundings as well as potential threats. The tendency we have to stretch during a yawn (known as pandiculation) could also be a leftover impulse to keep muscles limber and ready to go in case they were needed.
Another theory says that yawning may have been a territorial behavior. Animals would yawn, showing off their teeth to nearby competitors, and conveying a sense of dominance and not being threatened.
Of course, even today we are still without a lot of concrete knowledge about yawning and what purpose it serves or why we do it. Hopefully, though, the next time you find yourself getting ready to yawn, you will be able to understand a bit more about why it might be happening.