Old Wives’ Tales Debunked: Yawning


Keep your eyes open and try not to look too bored as Alison Lee educates you on the science behind yawning


Yawning is something UCD students will be doing a lot of over the coming weeks. While sitting in stuffy lecture theatres, while stuck in the library as the sun sets over campus, and while trembling in the waiting area at the RDS, prepare to receive many excellent views of your fellow students’ tonsils.

Chances are you’ll be struck with an insatiable urge to join them and find yourself revealing your fillings to the world because, as everyone knows, yawning is contagious. However, the reason for this remains ambiguous; indeed, yawning itself is still a mystery.
Many theories on why we yawn exist. Originally scientists claimed yawning helped relieve feelings of fatigue by stretching muscles, expelling carbon dioxide from the blood and taking more oxygen into the lungs. This hypothesis has been abandoned in favour of more complex theories based on the idea that yawning is an ancient means of communication.

Some yawning experts (yes, they DO exist) believe yawns are an instinctual signal we send each other to increase the overall alertness of a group. So maybe your study neighbour in the James Joyce is unconsciously doing you a favour by flashing his/her tongue piercing every two minutes.

Others believe yawning is an unconscious territorial reflex because, although you may not realise it, we often yawn when in worrying situations. This theory is backed up by research on animal behaviour that shows primates use yawns during threat displays. But to be honest, we don’t really have a clue why we yawn.

Some studies into the “contagious yawning” phenomenon show that when we yawn in response to someone else doing so, we are unconsciously exhibiting empathy. Research has revealed that autistic children rarely yawn in response to someone else doing so, unlike healthy children who start “contagious yawning” around age four.

This is affirmed by studies that used MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain scanning to show the part of the brain most affected during contagious yawning is the left periamygdalar region, an area associated with empathy. Funnily enough, the “mirror-neuron system”, involved in consciously analysing and mimicking the behaviour of others, is not at all altered during contagious yawning. This hints that yawning is a deeply ingrained, automatic and evolutionarily ancient reflex.

A study testing this “empathy” theory took place in Leeds University. Unbeknownst to them, psychology and engineering students were watched to see which group exhibited more contagious yawning behaviour. The psychology students yawned a whopping 3.7 times more that the engineers.

This tied in with the researcher’s assumption that psychology students, who are supposed to be attuned to the feelings of others, are naturally more “empathetic” than poor, socially retarded Eng students who spend all day glued to computer designing circuits.

So if you let out a yawn as your friend recounts the tragic tale of their latest breakup for the 17th time, tell them not to be offended. You’re not yawning because you’re bored silly and don’t care, you’re yawning because you’re full of empathy for their sad plight.