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The Surprising Benefits of Yawning

Yawning—such an odd physiological phenomenon. Humans yawn, and so do dogs, monkeys, birds, and just about every known vertebrate species other than giraffes (yes, that is also odd).

Over a decade ago, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, yawning became a prominent sidebar story. Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time, unleashed a pre-race routine that included, of all things, robust yawning.

At the time, watching Ohno let loose with a series of jaw-droppers, just seconds before one of the biggest moments of his life, not only triggered my own yawn song but also made me wonder: Why do we yawn?

Obviously, people and other animals yawn when they are tired; we all know that. But there must be more to it—there must be a biological purpose beyond letting chatty dinner guests know that they’ve overstayed their welcome.

Let’s consider three possible functions and the likelihood of each:

First, Apolo Ohno believes that it improves athletic performance.

Ohno once told Yahoo Sports that yawning makes him feel better, that it “gets the oxygen in and the nerves out.”

That sounds good, and I hate to contradict an eight-time Olympic medalist, but it’s not completely true. Yawning, as far as we know, does not improve overall oxygen levels.

Tyler Huston is a nurse, paramedic, and breathing specialist based in British Columbia who practices and teaches breath control therapy for rehabilitation from physical and/or psychological injury as well as for optimizing athletic performance.

He is not a big fan of yawning in the context of competition, although he told me that it might have a very specific value for an athlete like Ohno.

Apolo Ohno suffered for years from exercise-induced asthma, like so many of the high-performance athletes that I train, do. As a part of his treatment plan and the self-care balance of his mental health and physical performance, Apolo implemented breathing and breathwork training into his daily routine.

There is a level of CO2 (carbon dioxide) offloading that is beneficial directly before an event—but that level can be achieved with three large respiratory cycles. Anything more than this I see as only working against you in both sprint or endurance events.

Second, based on brain-scan studies, yawning increases the activity of a small area of the brain called the precuneus, which plays an important role in spatial orientation, memory, and consciousness. So, perhaps it helps with focus and attention.

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and author of multiple books on the topic, including Brain Weaver and How God Changes Your Brain, thinks so. He has encouraged yawning—even when not tired.

Does it sound impossible? It’s not; just fake a half dozen yawns and the real thing will awaken within you. Newberg’s advice is simple: “Yawn as many times a day as possible; when you wake up, when you’re confronting a difficult problem at work, when you prepare to go to sleep, and whenever you feel anger, anxiety, or stress.”

And third, there is the social function of yawning. Yes, it may be a social cue to bug off, but depending on the circumstances, it may also be a call for vigilance. On a family road trip, for instance, a driver’s yawn may be an important signal that they need a break.

Fans of the journal Animal Cognition may recall a 2021 study in which the vigilance effect of yawning was demonstrated; participants who witnessed yawning were more likely to subsequently detect threats in their environment than those who did not.

Specifically, this was a video environment and the “threats” were virtual snakes and the “foils” were virtual frogs. The authors concluded

Consistent with the view that yawning holds a distinct signaling function, there were significant interactions for both detection latency and distractor fixation frequency showing that vigilance was selectively enhanced following exposure to yawns.

That is, after viewing videos of other people yawning, participants detected snakes more rapidly and were less likely to fixate on distractor frogs during trials.

This signaling function may actually extend beyond vigilance and to empathy. Interestingly, children with autism-spectrum disorders seem to have an impaired ability to contagiously yawn.

And a study of 135 non-autistic college students utilizing the Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised (PPI-R) found that those scoring as more empathetic were more likely to reactionally yawn than more cold-hearted ones.

So, perhaps more yawning is actually the secret to a dinner gathering filled with kumbaya. Stifle that yawn at the peril of harmony.

But wait—as is often said, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. People who yawn too much may be suffering from pathological yawning—triggered by disease or an adverse reaction to the medication.

Consider a young woman described by Gilles de la Tourette in 1890 who yawned 480 times an hour—eight yawns a minute—which, given that the average yawn lasts 5 to 10 seconds, is just about non-stop yawning.

Clearly, this is neither normal nor beneficial. It turns out that this patient (who also suffered from vision loss and seizures) probably had a tumor of the pituitary gland.

Abnormal yawning is also associated with severe migraines, clinical depression, and major stroke. People taking anti-depressants, in particular serotonergic ones such as Prozac, can also suffer aggravating salvos of yawning, as can those acutely withdrawing from opioid intoxication.

Notwithstanding these exceptions, it seems that not only is a yawn a good way to keep us from falling asleep at the end of a night shift, but it may also serve to help us focus on peak performance, keep us safe in a snake-rich environment, and show our friends that we really do care.

So, perhaps we should all be yawning a lot more. It’s an intriguing concept, and if I can stifle my social phobias, I might just give it a shot myself. Who knows—it could be contagious.

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