In Praise of the Yawn: Five Fascinating Facts About This Biological Reflex That All Too Often Gets a Bad Rap
The next time you’re tempted to stifle a yawn, stop. More accurately, don’t stop. Yawning isn’t rude or socially unacceptable. It’s actually one of your body’s coolest tricks-and brings with it a host of benefits for your body, mind, and even your relationships.
Let’s say you’re sitting in a meeting at work, and you feel a yawn coming on. (We’ve all been there, haven’t we?) If you’re like most people, you probably try to stifle it. And if that doesn’t work, you try to discreetly hide the yawn behind your hand. After all, yawning is rude and a sign of boredom or fatigue-neither of which you want to display when your boss is outlining a new project. Right?
What Yawning Really Means
Wrong, actually. (About what yawning means, not about your intentions toward your boss!) According to mind training expert Patt Lind-Kyle, your yawn isn’t a sign that your boss is putting you to sleep. Rather, it’s a signal that your body is revving up your brain so that you can more efficiently process what she is saying.
“Many people believe that yawning in the presence of others is disrespectful,” observes Lind-Kyle, author of Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Applying the Exciting New Science of Brain Synchrony for Creativity, Peace and Presence (Energy Psychology Press, 2009, ISBN: 1604150564) and mind training guide whose voice appears on the book’s companion CDs. “The truth is, yawning has unfairly earned a bad rap. It’s actually the body’s way of rejuvenating the brain so that it can function more effectively.”
In scientific terms, a yawn is characterized by an inhalation of air that stretches the eardrums, followed by an exhalation. Yawns are occasionally accompanied by a stretch-for the curious, that’s called a “pandiculation.” Sometimes yawns are reflexive, and sometimes they are intentionally self-induced. And, Lind-Kyle points out, they always entail much more than just a wide-open mouth.
Complex Brain-Mind Relationship
Lind-Kyle has devoted years to the study of the human brain-mind and its complex relationship with the body and with human behavior. While her primary focus lies in rewiring the brain’s neuronal pathways to correct mental imbalances and dysfunctional behaviors, she has also become fascinated by many of the human body’s seeming quirks that actually serve vital purposes – yawns included!
Chances are, you’ve never given your own yawns a second thought. However, they may deserve one! Read on to learn how yawning impacts the brain, and why you should consider doing so more often. (And yes…it is possible to yawn on command!)
Increasing Mental Efficiency
Yawning increases mental efficiency. It’s no secret that it takes a lot of energy to stay focused when you’re engaged in concentrated activity. The mind has a tendency to wander and to slip from the task at hand, and this is when you might find yourself yawning. What you’re actually doing, says Lind-Kyle, is stimulating a neural area of the brain that plays a major role in being more conscious and self-reflective, and that also aids in relaxation, alertness, and maintaining a good memory. Any time you breathe deeply, your brain waves slow down and your muscles get the message to relax.
“The next time you’re stressed out and trying to maintain your focus, consciously take a moment to yawn every 20 minutes or so, and then sit back and relax,” suggests Lind-Kyle. “You’ll notice a difference.”
Example: Sara felt the time crunch as she had lots of details to take care of and not enough time to do them. She had taken on a leadership role to organize a charity musical event for blind children. She knew she had overcommitted herself, but her determination kept her on track in the final moments of planning. In the morning as Sara sat at her desk sifting through all the things she had to do, she observed herself yawning. In fact, she yawned quite a few times. She thought it strange, because she had enjoyed a good night’s sleep. After several yawns, though, she noticed an increased mental clarity. She was more relaxed and more alert, which helped her be efficient with her time as she finalized the details of the event.
Yawning helps the brain maintain balance. Research has found that yawning helps cool down the overactive brain as it attempts to regulate its temperature and metabolism.
In fact, yawning increases when people are engaged in difficult mental tasks-something you’ve no doubt noticed in your own life!
Surprising Relationship Between Yawning And Sleep
Yawning staves off sleep! This revelation might be the most surprising of all, since most of us operate under the impression that yawning makes us sleepier. Once again, science debunks conventional wisdom. Yawning helps contract the facial muscles, which forces blood through cerebral blood vessels to the brain-and this, scientists say, may function to increase alertness. Thus, yawning may reduce sleepiness as it reflects a mechanism that maintains attention.
Yawning helps you “reset” yourself. That’s right – it’s almost like pushing the “reset” button on an electronic device. When you yawn, you help regulate your body’s circadian rhythms, or the roughly 24-hour cycle of human behavior and biological activity. This is true for babies, patients coming out of comas, and partygoers who are returning home from a night out. Yawning also increases when people are in the midst of a change from inactivity to activity, and vice versa.
Resetting Your Internal Clock
“Yawning really does help you reset your internal clock,” says Lind-Kyle. “In scientific terms, it arouses your neuromuscular wiring and creates a harmonious progression in the brain stem. When you’re traveling by plane and changing time zones, remember to yawn to help reset your circadian rhythms. Yawning will help to reduce the effects of jet lag.”
Example: Josh had been lying in bed in a coma for two weeks after his accident. His mother faithfully came to the hospital to see him every day, hoping that this was the day he would wake up. Then one morning as she came into his room, she noticed him move and make some sounds. Her heart leapt. And then suddenly, Josh yawned several times before opening his eyes and speaking. His mother was overjoyed because he was back in our world, and she knew that he would be getting well. Josh’s yawning continued over several days. His mother kept wondering why he yawned as he came out of a coma. In fact, the yawns were a mechanism by which Josh could reset his brain after awakening from his coma!
Improve Your Mood
Yawning can lift your mood – and maybe even save your marriage! When you yawn, your dopamine levels rise. This activates oxytocin, or pleasure and relationship-bonding chemicals. The more these chemicals are activated, the more frequently you yawn. Yawning is also contagious, because it triggers the mirror neurons that literally prompt you to reflect another person’s behavior or emotional state. People who are on antidepressants may experience yawning more often, especially in the first three months of taking the SSRIs.
“It’s cheesy, but I always say that the people who yawn together stay together!” Lind-Kyle shares. “In stressful situations with your friends and loved ones, simply stop the conversation and yawn together several times. If nothing else, you may get a few laughs with each other. And that’s great, because laughter is pretty close to yawning in terms of its effects!”
Example: Janet and Ray had a disagreement that lasted all week. Each time they came home from work, they would rekindle their argument without making any progress. Finally, after carrying the anger and tension around all week, they were able to talk honestly about their concerns and feelings. After experiencing the clarity that came from their talk, they felt closer. As they sat back on the sofa, Janet began to yawn, and then Ray also began to yawn as if the action were contagious. They both laughed because it felt so good to be relaxed and at ease with one another again. Their dopamine levels had just experienced a boost!
In other words, yawn away – and don’t feel self-conscious about it.
“Okay, if you yawn and stretch exuberantly while the CEO is talking you might not get the warmest reaction,” laughs Lind-Kyle. “Just be sure to follow up your faux pas with a quick explanation of yawning’s many physiological and psychological gifts. Your body knows what it needs to function at its best – so relax and let it work.”
About the Book:
Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Applying the Exciting New Science of Brain Synchrony for Creativity, Peace and Presence (Energy Psychology Press, 2009, ISBN: 1604150564) is available at bookstores nationwide and through major online booksellers.
About the CDs:
Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Companion CDs for the Book (2-CD set, $14.95) contains six sessions that guide listeners through the exercises and practices relating to each of the four brainwave frequencies as described in the book. The CDs can be used in conjunction with the book, or as a stand-alone tool. To download a free mp3 of one of the exercises or to purchase the CDs, please visit healrewireyourbrain.com/cds.