Cumberland Times-News

December 14, 2013

A scientific (or not) treatise on yawning

Maude McDaniel, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— It is my duty, I feel, to alert my readers to the scientific advances of our time, so let me write today about — yawning. Yawning is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting human physical reactions that you can write about without embarrassment.

It can be, and sometimes is, defined as “a reflex of simultaneous inhalation of air and stretching of the eardrums, followed by exhalation of breath.” A related reflex is the act of yawning and stretching simultaneously, which is called “pandiculation,” and I’m pretty sure that is news to you, so I have not lived in vain. Pandiculation (try saying that; it will make you sound intelligent) is, of course, tremendously relaxing but has not been proved to do that much for your health, or anything else.

Reasons for yawning include something to do with oxygenating the blood, but no one seems quite sure about any of this. I have also read that yawning and stretching the lips actually help keep the brain cool, which seems like an excellent idea, and we should all try to do more of it. Hot-brained behavior is responsible for more than its share of sorrow and destruction in the world we live in, almost as much as no-brained behavior.

Other theories about yawning suggest that it serves to get rid of unnecessary carbon dioxide in the blood. If it actually does that, I haven’t been able to find out but, as a project, it has a nice ring to it, so we will accept it. There are many other proposed reasons for yawning, all of which I found pretty boring so we will move right along.

Here’s something interesting: similar to organized howling in a wolf pack, yawning can synchronize moods in gregarious animals. Why this should be important is beyond me, especially if everybody is just lying around dozing off, but it is apparently helpful in terms of fellowship and getting along with each other, so it has its place, even in a pack of bored wolves too sleepy to howl.

Peoplewise, of course, yawning is common and it is, for some reason, catching. The French even have a saying for that: “One good gaper makes seven others gape.” (Actually it’s in French but Wikipedia says that’s what it means.) Erasmus had something to say about yawning which wasn’t brilliant enough for me to remember right now, and I forgot to copy it down. I’m sure it was important though; the ancient Greeks always had a pretty good handle on life.

The real reason I started to look into yawning is because it is so contagious. I have noticed that all of my dogs would yawn after I did. (Dogs under seven months apparently do not yawn as much in response to others’ yawns, for some reason.) One article I read on this subject points out that we would do well not to carry this business of assuming canine empathy too much. For instance, certain experiments have found out that “when dogs look guilty, they may not actually be feeling guilty.” (I would love to know how they figured that one out, but there were no further details.)

Rusty has been known to put a little throat-drag-sound into the yawning exercise, which must mean something. The more you are related to each other, says Wikipedia, the more likely you will join in yawning with the other person. Also your ability to relate to others seems to increase mutual yawning; apparently, autistic children do not yawn much in response to others’ yawning.

And did you know that yawning can even be seen as a threat to others, and as a claim to power, among chimpanzees and apes? Oh yes, and I bet you didn’t know that snakes yawn. Don’t get all warm and fuzzy about it though, because it happens apparently after a good meal and they are clearing their teeth and throats for the next one.

For some cultures, yawning has spiritual meaning. Think of it as letting your soul escape or allowing evil spirits to enter, and perhaps we should not do it so lightly. Generally, it seems to stand for boredom.

Every culture has dealt with certain aspects of yawning: a 17th century deep thinker is quoted as saying, “in yawning, howl not.” Come to think of it, it is hard to yawn without making some little sound, and it could be called a howl, I guess. Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of that since I started writing this article. Somehow I just can’t stop yaaaaaaaaaaawning!

Ha, ha, you’re next!

Gotcha, Reader!

Maude McDaniel is a Cumberland freelance writer. Her column appears on alternate Sundays in the Times-News.