Why do you yawn when you’re bored, according to experts

Yawning woman.  (Getty Images)

Yawning woman. (Getty Images)

The first human experience with yawning occurs in utero, says Matthew D. Epstein, MD, associate medical director of Atlantic Health Sleep Centers in New Jersey. However, on the Earth’s side, somewhat involuntary action can be perceived as a sign of boredom: during a monotonous conference, a long journey or while watching TV. In reality, yawning triggers are much more layered than that. So, if you’re chatting with someone who reaches out to cover their mouth, try not to take offense right away.

Below, experts explain what a yawn is, what causes one, and delve into theories linking yawning and boredom.

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What is a yawn?

Yawning is an innate, reflexive behavior characterized by a slightly open mouth accompanied by a deep inhalation and stretching of the muscles around the throat, Epstein explains. This is followed by a short pause, a quick release of muscle tension and an exhalation. Yawning is also phylogenetically preserved, meaning it occurs in many different animal species including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, Epstein adds.

Why do I yawn when I’m bored?

Karen D. Sullivan, Ph.D., board-certified neuropsychologist and creator of I Care For Your Brain calls boredom-induced yawning the biggest myth associated with action. That’s because yawning is, more specifically, associated with any state of low alertness in the brain, she says. The boredom connection is actually more of a sleepiness connection, or when we’re just not engaged with something in our environment and the brain is switching to sleep.

Studies have found that yawning increases arousal and promotes circulation. In the five seconds it takes to yawn, you not only see an increase in oxygen, but all the things that contribute to increased circulation, Sullivan explains, like a rapid heart rate and increased skin conductance.

Even yawning has been compared to a dose of caffeine, adds Sullivan. So whenever we were under threat of being understimulated or overstimulated, that [yawning] part of the brain comes into play, he explains.

There is also a socio-evolutionary aspect: in animals, yawning, particularly showing the teeth, is a power move that shows dominance or intimidation. This may explain why, in humans, yawning without covering the mouth is socially expected as a sign of boredom or disrespect, Sullivan adds. It’s definitely very strong interpersonal communication, she says.

Reasons why we yawn

It was once believed that yawning’s primary function was to raise otherwise low oxygen levels, but a 1987 study debunked that theory. And despite additional extensive research on yawning, its true purpose remains uncertain, Epstein says. However, there are a few other biological factors that researchers believe contribute, including:

Brain temperature regulation

Yawning makes it easier for the brain to cool down, Epstein explains. This happens via blood flow, inhaling fresh air, and the occasional watery eyes. Yawning has also been found to occur before, during, and after instances of abnormal thermoregulation, such as heat stress and hyperthermia. This explains why people with medical conditions that cause an increase in core body temperature such as multiple sclerosis (MS), epilepsy, anxiety and head trauma experience excessive yawning followed by temporary symptom relief.

Improved respiratory function

The airways are never as wide as they are during the peak five seconds of a yawn, Sullivan says. And a recent hypothesis, Epstein adds, suggests that those stretches and repositions of the upper airway muscles may acutely improve respiratory function.

Social empathy

As you probably know yawning is contagious, you might be resisting one now. This is thanks to the brain’s mirror neuron system, Sullivan explains, which is thought to be an evolutionary phenomenon related to our ability to imitate, empathize with, and participate in group behavior. It goes back to some kind of pre-language, before we could talk, he says. This is how we really developed as a species, through social learning.

When might excessive yawning be dangerous?

Excessive yawning is usually not a cause for concern and probably just indicates sleepiness. However, in some cases, extra yawning can signal something more serious, such as vasovagal syncope (a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate that leads to fainting), neurological conditions such as epilepsy and MS, or, in rare cases , a brain tumor.

How to stop an incoming yawn

Yawning often seems involuntary—it’s triggered by the same part of the brain as sneezing, Sullivan says. But the difference is that a yawn can be controlled top-down if you think about it enough, he adds. So if you hear one coming during a one-on-one with your boss, not all hope is lost. You can smother it, Sullivan says. I think it’s because yawning has this more social component, which is very interesting.

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