I Hope It’s Never Happened Reading “Bioforthebiobuff”
At high school we had a history teacher by the name of Dr. L., who had spent 11 years in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp before being released in 1955. He used to put the history book on the classroom’s desk, positioned himself comfortably on a chair near the side of the classroom and asked some of the best readers in class to take turns to read from the book. That’s how his lesson went. Although he can perhaps be forgiven for killing our interest in history by this behavior of his, his antics were also a cause of hilarity, especially when we noticed the regularity of his yawns and could predict when another big yawn of his would appear (silently counting: 14, 15, 16, 17, “yawn”!). But what made him yawn so much? Boredom, lack of sleep, or something else? And why is it so ‘contagious’? Mirror neurons perhaps?
The common view has always been that yawning was related to a lack of oxygen, a build-up of carbon dioxide and a room that was too warm and stuffy. Consequently, a call to open the window and let in ‘fresh air’, could often be heard in situations where people were seen to yawn frequently and appear sleepy. Yet, numerous studies have shown that lack of oxygen and carbon dioxide increases are by themselves not a cause of yawns. The situation is complex and although the amount of yawning appears to be correlated with boredom and sleepiness, it must leave us puzzled to notice that even after a good night’s sleep we wake up and then more often than not yawn upon awakening. Why yawn at that time? And cooling the brain in the morning or at other times by gaping wide: does it make sense? The idea that yawning is a component of thermoregulation has not yet achieved the acceptance it hoped to get.
If we examine objectively what happens during a yawn, we notice that it involves a wide open mouth and a long and deep inspiration of several seconds, sometimes accompanied by some soft vocalization during expiration. It is an involuntary behaviour that can be triggered by thinking and reading about yawning and/or seeing someone yawn. Yawning is communicative and is generally coupled with inactivity, lethargy and sluggishness (sometimes worry as well). To suppress the yawns can be difficult, especially when hindered to move as in boring meetings, lectures, and waiting rooms. And this actually gives us a clue: our bodies need us to stretch occasionally, to shake our arms and legs, to release tension.
The realization that yawning is a stretch response has been gaining attention ever since it was observed that when hemiplegic individuals that not normally can move their arms do move them when they pandiculate with an associated yawn. Yawning when pandiculating, i.e. stretching and thereby contracting and relaxing muscles, reduces muscular tension, is resetting and restoring the control over muscles, something that is critical for posture and movement and something that yoga instructors constantly emphasize. Obviously, the fact that the slow expiration following a yawn is associated with a sympathetic activation marked by an increase in blood pressure, suggests that at the start of the yawn it is associated with a sympathetic suppression that favours a parasympathetic dominance. This might also explain the observation of a paraplegic’s involuntary movement of its toes during a yawn.
Yawning must have ancient roots in the animal kingdom, for it can be observed in almost any animal group and is not even restricted to vertebrates alone as this delightful recording of a yawning leech shows here . Lizards, frogs, toads and even fish can be seen to yawn and all of them are ectothermic (often referred to as ‘cold-blooded’). As such, they would not be expected to use the yawning response to cool their brains as has been suggested for mammals, but could find yawning useful in connection with stretching and therefore the restoration of muscle control. Yawning: a kind of physical exercise without having to get up? I think that that is a distinct possibility.
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