The next time you are with a group of friends, try this little experiment: Take a big yawn and watch and see how many people follow suit. There’s a good chance you’ll set off a chain reaction of deep breaths and wide-open mouths.
Yawning is an involuntary action that causes us to open our mouths wide and breathe in deeply. We know it’s involuntary because we do it even before we’re born. Yawns typically last about six seconds and often occur in clusters. Researchers are starting to unravel the mystery surrounding the yawn. Yawning, they have discovered, is much more complicated than previously thought and although all yawns look the same, they appear to have many different causes and serve a variety of functions.
There are several theories about why we yawn. Here are the four most common:
The physiological theory: Our bodies induce yawning to draw in more oxygen or remove a buildup of carbon dioxide. This theory helps explain why we yawn in groups
The evolution theory: Some think that yawning began with our ancestors, who used yawning to show their teeth and intimidate others.
The boredom theory: Although we do tend to yawn when bored or tired, this theory doesn’t explain why Olympic athletes yawn right before they compete in their event or why dogs tend to yawn just before they attack.
The brain-cooling theory: A more recent theory proposed by researchers is that people yawn more in situations where their brains are likely to be warmer. Cool brains can think more clearly; hence, yawning might have developed to keep us alert.
But why does seeing someone else yawn might make us yawn too?
Interestingly, while all vertebrates (including fish) yawn – only humans, chimps and possibly dogs find yawns contagious. Recent studies show contagious yawning may be linked to one’s capacity for empathy. That is why humans don’t find them contagious until they’re about 4 years old; about the age when we develop a sense of empathy.
What we do know for sure is if you yawn at work or at a gathering, you’ll probably notice a few other people will start yawning, too. Even thinking about yawning can get you yawning. How many times have you yawned while reading this article? We hope not many.
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