Though the average one lasts only six seconds, and raises your heart rate by as much as 30%, yawning is still a phenomenon full of mystery often leaving researchers wondering what causes yawning and why people yawn when they do.
Surprisingly all vertebrates yawn… but why do we yawn? Why do we sometimes yawn uncontrollably? Is there more behind yawning than boredom or a long day?
New research seeks to answer some of these questions, and has led a team of researchers from Binghamton University to conclude that yawning may be linked to brain temperature; developed as a way to “cool” the brain.
This would explain why tired people often yawn, since fatigue and sleep depravation increase deep brain temperature.
Yawning also seems to be part of a transitional state for the brain, as in the periods just before sleep and just after waking. Conditions like multiple sclerosis (involving thermoregulatory dysfunction), migraines and epileptic seizures often involve bouts of excessive yawning.
The researchers suggest that we think of the brain as a computer, and point out that complex machines like these operate most efficiently when kept cool. Without a fan a computer would soon overheat and grind to a halt.
This heating creates the need for a physical process to help to bring down the temperature in the brain and so the true purpose for the misunderstood yawn reveals itself.
The team of researchers analyzed yawning in parakeets, representative vertebrates that have big brains, live in the wild where temperature swings are common and, most critical of all, are not prone to contagious yawning as people are.
Contagious yawning is believed to be a mechanism that may have evolved to keep groups of people alert and vigilant against danger. In fact, an estimated 55% of people will yawn within five minutes of seeing someone else yawn.
This may be more than just being suggestibility. Studies show that contagious yawning might also be related to a predisposition toward empathy; trying to understand an connect with others.
We see someone yawn, we yawn in sympathy to show in a clear, nonverbal way that we understand.
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New Research: Yawning May Help Cool Off Our Brains… continued
So, if you’re one of those people who yawns when they see someone else do it you can take this as a sign of how much empathy you feel for those around you.
And speaking of empathy it’s hard to put aside feeling for the poor parakeets in the study – exposed to three different conditions — increasing temperatures, high temperature and a moderate control temperature.
The frequency of yawns more than doubled under the temperature increase. Experts believe that the yawning in birds, just as it may in people, acts like a radiator, cooling the brain and body.
Earlier work has shown that yawning delivers a jolt of energy. Just think about what you do when you yawn, open wide and inhale a great gulp of air. Your heart rate increases to deliver the oxygen rich blood to all body systems including the brain.
If you still doubt the energizing effect of the yawn, think about what you do first thing in the morning. Or watch Olympic athletes yawn as they prepare for events where a heightened state of arousal and top physical condition are key to winning.
This very unique research into what causes yawning appears in the January 2009 of the journal Animal Behavior.