When she worked in banking, Nana Gigolaeva used to shift her eyes from left to right during her boss’s presentations.
“It made me focus so I wouldn’t yawn,” says Gigolaeva, 30, of Walnut Creek, Calif. “If I yawned while he was talking, well, God help us.”
If Gigolaeva’s boss knew a little something about thermoregulatory function, the maintenance of a consistent temperature, he’d take her yawn as a compliment. According to psychologists and researchers who study such things, yawning has nothing to do with boredom, rudeness, or even fatigue. Quite the contrary. Yawning helps cool down our brains so they function better, explains Andrew Gallup, a researcher who specializes in yawning at New York’s University of Binghamton.
“Our brains are like computers,” says Gallup, who conducted yawning studies in 2007 with his father, Gordon Gallup, of the State University of New York at Albany. “They operate most efficiently when cool. Our research indicates that we yawn in response to increased brain or body temperature.”
Despite a 1987 study that disproved yawning as a response to reduced oxygen levels, the younger Gallup says some people still believe that’s why we yawn. It’s not. In fact, he adds, comparative support shows that yawning provides a means for achieving increased alertness and arousal, especially when changing from one mental state to another (activity to inactivity or sleeping to waking). So, if anything, it’s a mechanism to recharge so you can better absorb information.
But try explaining that to a friend or colleague. When Sharon Sorscher of Walnut Creek is talking to someone and feels a yawn coming on, she closes her mouth to stifle it. “If I’m conscious of it, I’ll keep my mouth closed and try to do an internal yawn in the back of my throat,” says Sorscher, a 22-year-old student at Cal State East Bay. “It doesn’t always work.”
Nevada City, Calif., therapist and educator Patt Lind-Kyle isn’t concerned with the social stigmas attached to yawning. In fact, Lind-Kyle, a former health education professor at Foothill College in Los Altos, is such a believer that she encourages clients to induce yawning.
‘It’s good stuff’
In her work, Lind-Kyle uses neuro-monitoring tools such as yawning to help increase health and manage stress. Slowing down your breath, flaring your nostrils while inhaling, or watching someone else do it are all ways to induce yawning, she says.
“Yawning helps us relax,” says Lind-Kyle, author of “Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain” (Energy Psychology Press, 2009). “It lifts our moods. It’s good stuff. And it’s free.”
Andrew Gallup doesn’t believe yawning is beneficial enough to induce, because if you’re not yawning, your brain temperature is probably where it needs to be, he says. However, he does believe that yawning has important direct applications in the medical field as it relates to thermoregulatory dysfunction, he says. And it tends to be commonly overlooked.
Certain methods, like applying a cold wash cloth to your forehead or breathing through your nose, can be effective in cooling down the brain and body and warding off excessive yawning, which is a symptom of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, for instance. Both diseases have degrees of thermoregulatory dysfunction, Andrew Gallup says. Yawning has also been linked to blocking the reuptake of serotonin, much like antidepressants do, so that more of the brain chemical is available to act on receptors in the brain, Gordon Gallup says.
It is contagious
And how’s this for trivia: The reason yawning is so common before sleep and upon waking is because those are the times when body temperature is at its highest, according to Andrew Gallup.
“Sleep and body temperature vary inversely,” he explains. “So, extended sleep deprivation significantly increases brain and body temperature.” Think of it this way — if you’re suffering from chronic insomnia and yawning every 10 minutes, you need to catch up on sleep. But, you may also try taking a cold shower or jumping in a pool, the younger Gallup says.
You’ll be glad to know that one of the most commonly held beliefs about yawning — its contagiousness — is fact.
“We believe contagious yawning is a byproduct of primitive empathic mechanisms,” says Gordon Gallup, a psychology professor at SUNY Albany. “In a group situation, we evolved to yawn as a way to raise our overall mental processing and collective vigilance, say, against predators.”
While all vertebrates yawn, only humans, chimps and baboons are contagious yawners, Andrew Gallup notes. Domesticated dogs are as well, but only when they see humans yawn, he adds. Surprisingly, reading about or thinking about yawning or even hearing someone yawn is all it takes, Gordon Gallup says.
“It’s a very ubiquitous phenomenon,” he says. “Yawning begins in the womb, probably because it’s going to become a very important behavior later in life.”
Tell that to your boss.