Yawning is Contagious... but is it Good For You?
Despite the fact that we yawn spontaneously five to ten times a day, and that it is a highly pleasurable event, comparatively little effort has gone into understanding why we yawn. In fact, it was not until 2010 that the first English-language textbook on yawning was published. So, we don’t know much about yawns, but much of what we do know is practical and can add to our practice with the breath.
Common knowledge and, indeed, common sense support the claim that yawning brings more oxygen to the brain. Essentially, that was the major “scientific” position from Hippocrates’ time until the 1980s.
However, this piece of wisdom was finally tested, and roundly rejected, by R. Provine, B. Tate, and L. Geldmacher, who showed that neither reduced oxygen nor increased carbon dioxide triggered yawns in their subjects. This finding brought about more serious research on the neglected yawn, which is ongoing today. One researcher, Wolter Seuntjens, has proposed a name for this new area of concentration: chasmology, from chasm, the Greek for “yawn.” Makes sense, doesn’t it? A yawning mouth really does open chasm-wide.
Yawning: A Key to Maintaining Well-Being
As we feel our way through understanding them, we see that yawns certainly do bring discontinuity to the breathing pattern, yet they entail much more than just the respiratory system. They are a stereotyped behavior that seems to be a key to maintaining well-being.
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The movements and events are always roughly the same from person to person. In fact, yawns can be seen in developing fetuses from the end of the first trimester on. Further, yawns are in the repertoire of all vertebrates, whether warm or cold blooded, whether they live on land, in water, or in air.
What Is A Yawn: Actual Description of Yawning
You’ll feel your way through this description: a gaping of the mouth with a long inbreath; a pause at the peak, or acme, of the sequence; followed by a short, full outbreath, accompanied by relaxation of all the involved muscles. And that’s just the outline from the breathing point of view.
A comprehensive description would notice the stretching of the muscles of the jaw, cheeks, and neck (maybe obscuring hearing and seeing, and even bringing tears to the eyes); the opening of the throat; the stretching of muscles of the arms, chest, back, abdomen, and possibly elsewhere; the sensations from a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters, such as the pleasurable feelings from oxytocin and serotonin; the sense of relaxation from activation of the parasympathetic response; and the sense of slipping away from or coming into the sense of the body (falling asleep or waking up).
Yawning: Better Than Meditation Techniques
It may be that yawning facilitates a transition in consciousness or attention. We yawn before sleep and upon waking. We yawn often before an intense undertaking, such as a musical performance — or a parachute jump! Fogel suggests that the yawn may be a signal for the body to “wake up to itself,” for the yawner to come into embodied self-awareness. (The Psychophysiology of Self-Awareness, by Alan Fogel)
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg explains that one of the parts of the brain that is stimulated by yawning, the precuneus, is a key to consciousness, self-reflection, and memory retrieval, noting that this same structure is stimulated by yogic breathing and other forms of meditation. As he puts it, “Yawning will relax you and bring you into a state of alertness faster than any other meditation technique I know of.” (How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist by Andrew B. Newberg)
Yawning is Highly Contagious in Humans, Primates, and Dogs!
It’s quite possible that reading these last few paragraphs about yawning has caused you to yawn. That prospect takes us to new realms of research and speculation. Yawning is highly “contagious.” It gets triggered in 45–60 percent of adults when seeing, hearing, or even imagining someone else yawning.
This phenomenon of contagion seems to be related to our capacity for empathy, as it involves areas of the brain that help us to be aware of ourselves and attune to others. (The Mindful Therapist by Daniel J. Siegel) Groups can attune to each other through a contagious yawn. And there is even an erotic dimension, as yawning is linked to sexual response and pair bonding.
It is revealing that yawning does not appear to be contagious among children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, who do not orient socially in typical ways. Further, contagious yawning only appears in humans and other primates — with the interesting possible exception of dogs, those animal companions that join with us socially.
Experimenting with Yawning
Just as the sigh helps to bring the respiratory system into greater balance, into a state of correlated variability in systems theory terms, so a yawn acts in the same way for the embodied awareness within you and within a social group. Yawning might be seen as a strange attractor, from which emerges a new and clearer way of being in the body and being together with others. And the best part is, yawning is both automatic and intentional, spontaneous and contagious. It’s ambiguous, so you can be playful with it.
When a yawn arises on its own, can you notice where it’s taking you? Can you get one started when alone, to help transition to a different activity? Can you get one started in a group, to bring you all together? Scientists may not know much about yawning, but the real challenge is, what can you find out?
Yawning Exercise: Fake It ’Til You Make It
To get a real sense of the embodied self-awareness brought on by a yawn, all you have to do is fake one. You know how they go. Then add another. And another. Until a real one spontaneously kicks in. It may take six or seven fake ones before the real thing comes along. Then, when it does, keep on going. Don’t stop until you reach a dozen. (Adapted from “How God Changes Your Brain" by Andrew B. Newberg)
Check in then. What do you know about your attention, muscle tightness, and sense of well-being? (By the way, if you couldn’t stop after twelve, that’s just fine; you may just be yawn deprived!)
©2012 by Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Healing Arts Press,
a division of Inner Traditions International. www.HealingArtsPress.com
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
New World Mindfulness -- from the Founding Fathers, Emerson, and Thoreau to your Personal Practice -- by Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D.
Dispelling the two big myths of mindfulness -- that it is an “exotic” activity and that it requires you to “slow down and find more time” -- the authors reveal a high-speed form of contemplation ideal for even the busiest lives. Exploring the physiological impact of mindfulness practices for stress, anxiety, depression, and coping with serious illness and major life changes, the authors show that mindfulness is not about being silent and alone -- it can even be practiced as a family or community.
About the Authors
Donald McCown is assistant professor of integrative health at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and the former director of the Mindfulness at Work program at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine. Coauthor of Teaching Mindfulness, he also teaches advanced mindfulness courses for the general public, and teaches clinicians to teach mindfulness. He maintains a practice of mindfulness-based psychotherapy and teaches in the post graduate marriage and family therapy program at Council for Relationships in Philadelphia. He has particular clinical and research interest in the use of mindfulness in working with adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities and their families, and with artists and professionals negotiating anxiety and depression in their lives.
Marc S. Micozzi, M.D., Ph.D., is adjunct professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the founding director of the Policy Institute for Integrative Medicine in Washington, D.C. Trained as both a medical physician and an anthropologist, Dr. Micozzi was the founding editor of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He is the author and editor of Fundamentals of Complementary & Alternative Medicine and coauthor of The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion.