Chill Out With Facts about Yawning and Yawns

Yawning: it’s the familiar process of opening the mouth wide while taking a deep breath. Often yawning is an involuntary reaction to fatigue or boredom, according to Merriam-Webster.

We know that hunger, stress, boredom, and tiredness, can all trigger yawning. For people, spontaneous yawning begins in the womb. Later, we often start to yawn as we observe others do so.

Interestingly, yawning is seen in animals of just about every size and description. From the huge gaping mouth of a hippopotamus to the tiniest hummingbird, all creatures big and small seem to yawn. For the most part, the reason remains mysterious, though we may all make intuitive guesses.

Below, watch a hummingbird snoring peacefully as it sleeps. 

Yawning is Contagious

Andrew Gallup of the State University of New York at Oneonta is a biopsychologist and a yawn specialist. Thanks to his research, we can say that yawning is contagious– in birds. Gallup and his team researched budgerigars commonly kept parakeets.

Budgies kept in view of other yawning birds were shown to yawn in response. If you have kept budgies as a popular pet, it may not be surprising. However, the research proved budgies yawn when they see other budgies yawn, just like people.

Parakeet budgies yawning
Budgies yawn, screenshot via YouTube

Before Gallup’s research, it was known that yawning is harmlessly contagious in humans, domestic dogs, wolves, and chimpanzees. New research confirms that when humans yawn, dogs “catch” them contagiously.

Additionally, we know yawning is contagious in a type of rodent called the high-yawning Sprague-Dawley rat. 

As for the last critter, it seems necessary to offer further explanation. Sprague-Dawley rats are the albino type used extensively in laboratory research. However, these rats are not ordinary run-of-the-mill Sprague-Dawley rats, but a subline known to yawn 20 times an hour versus the typic two times. 

For all creatures, in evolutionary terms, contagious yawning is ancient.

Recommended reading: Brain facts – 135 Interesting Facts About the Brain

When Yawning is Not Contagious

For some people, yawning is not as contagious. Researchers in Japan have noted that children with autism or those with schizophrenia are not as prone to so-called social yawning. Both conditions involve impaired social skills, and people with autism or schizophrenia have no problems spontaneously yawning.

While most children yawn contagiously when seeing or even hearing others yawn, the scientists found that kids with autism are less likely to take note of facial cues. Thus, they yawned only when they were focused on the mouth area while someone yawned.  

Another study from Durham, North Carolina found that people are less prone to social yawning as they age. Strangely, yawning may have little to do with how tired you are. 

Now, researchers are searching for a possible genetic basis that makes some people more prone to contagious yawning.

Recommended reading: Sleep Facts – 36 Interesting Facts About Sleep

A Yawn Shows Greater Empathy?

As part of Gallup’s research, the team suggested why they thought parakeets may yawn contagiously.

According to Nature World News:

“The researchers believe that contagious yawning is not the result of stress or anxiety, nor an involuntary action, but rather a primitive form of showing empathy.”

“It has, for instance, been found that it’s more common among people who are deemed to be more empathetic. Thanks to a process called emotional contagion, or state matching, contagious yawning occurs when a person thinks about or senses someone else carrying out this drowsy action.”

Notably, it’s not certain that yawning correlates to empathy. More recent studies have not proven a relationship between empathy and social yawning. For example, studies of dogs that yawn when seeing a person show it makes no difference if they know the person or not. So, it would stand to reason that empathy probably didn’t play a factor.

Yawning as Indicator of Brain Size?

Yawn researchers continue to study the phenomena. In 2016, another Gallup study found that the duration of a yawn correlates with brain size. Thus, a human tends to yawn for longer than other species. 

Interestingly, the study also found that yawning might promote brain growth.

Why? It may have to do with a thermoregulatory effect, cooling off the bain by sucking in outside air—the bigger the yawn, the more cortical neurons, which need to cool off.

While temporarily cooling the brain, yawning may also increase the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid. Thus, rather than putting one to sleep, it could kick bring the brain to attention. In evolutionary terms, this means that contagious yawning could bring about more alertness and vigilance in a group, as non-intuitive as that may sound.

See Dr. Andrew Gallup discuss yawning and empathy below from WSJ News:

Dog Versus Cat Yawns

After studying 19 different animal species and many YouTube yawn videos, the researchers found that humans yawn longest, at an average of 6.5 seconds. From there, they found that animals had varying yawn lengths, potentially corresponding to brain mass. And, animals with huge jaws did not necessarily yawn longer than those with smaller jaws.

Does the length of yawn indicate how smart you are? Or how interested you are in the topic? We don’t know, but another interesting find was that dogs yawn longer than cats at 2.4 versus 1.97 seconds on average.

Does this solve the age-old question of whether dogs are smarter than cats or vice versa? Ha! We’re treading in dangerous territory with that question, so we’ll say definitely not!

Below, see pets yawning, including budgies, bunnies, cats, and more from My Happy Pets:

Yawning to Cure Hiccups?

In a more recent study, Gallup suggests that contagious yawning could be a cure for chronic cases of hiccups. Unfortunately, some people are inflicted with intractable hiccups, involuntary contractions of the diaphragm lasting for days or even months. In those cases, patients must rely on medication or try acupuncture –or even digital rectal massage.

Since the time of Plato, it has been thought that related sneezing could stop chronic hiccups. Of course, one can’t induce sneezing reliably, but, as we’ve seen, there is a way to induce yawning. Thus, perhaps using yawn therapy could disrupt the muscles in the diaphragm causing hiccups.

If you’re suffering from intractable hiccups, here are some other suggestions from NYU otolaryngologist Dr. Erich Voigt and Business Insider:

We hope you’ve found our facts about yawning and yawns entertaining, and not worthy of a yawn. On the other hand, maybe yawning means increased brain growth?