Bizarre Science: Why Do We Yawn?

The act of oscitation, more commonly known as yawning, is probably one of the most shared experiences among human beings. Be that as it may, scientists are still left scratching their heads when attempting to discern why it is we yawn in the first place. 

The process is most commonly paired with feelings of boredom and exhaustion. As such, it comes as no surprise when some researchers believe yawning is the body’s way of waking us up. More specifically, Professor Robert Provine of the University of Maryland states, yawning correlates with a change in our functional state- from “wakefulness to sleep, sleep to wakefulness, boredom to alertness.” This explains why we oscitate not just when we’re feeling lethargic but also in times of stress, physical or mental. 

However, psychologists Andrew Gallup and Gordon Gallup have provided another theory in their paper titled “Yawning and Thermoregulation”. Here, they suggest the increase of blood circulation around the brain caused by yawning leads to a cooling effect, thus preventing the brain from overheating. Data from experiments testing the hypothesis, however, are inconclusive. 

When exploring the biological importance of yawning, it would be remiss to ignore the reasons behind its contagious nature. Ever sat across from a friend yawning, only to feel your mouth stretch open wide seconds later? Perhaps you’ve been resisting the urge to yawn throughout this article. Many researchers attribute this to a primitive form of social communication, or “social mirroring”- where we unconsciously imitate the actions of one another. Despite the plethora of theories being discussed, the simple act of yawning’s mysterious origins continues to be a cause for debate within the scientific community.  

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Mariam Jallow

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November 2021
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