Yawning: Tired or Subconscious Function?


Yawning happens daily for most people. This action is neither planned, nor voluntary. Sleepiness is usually associated with yawns, as they are often experienced prior to rest and upon waking. There have been some recent studies that show yawning may be less of an indicator of tiredness than previously thought. These same studies also take a look at the brain function during these episodes. Yawning has been found to restore fleeting motor control in subjects with paralysis. This discovery raises questions about the way yawning affects neurological abilities.

The Early Years

Yawning is an action that takes place our entire lives, even prior to birth. Interest in this action has driven researchers to observe unborn babies. Before humans are fully developed, they are already yawning. Studies show evidence of the action during the first three months in utero. Newborns, children, and the elderly all yawn regularly. Animals also yawn on a regular basis. Scientists continue to look for the link in our past that explains yawning.

Early Theories

The reason behind yawning has been a mystery. The action is considered to serve a purpose, due to its perseverance over time. Unnecessary actions are theorized to disappear over years of human evolution. This one, however, seems to be standing the test of time.

Gordon Gallup placed his theory on the table in the year 2011. He suggested that the yawn serves the purpose of cooling the body. His theory has gone unproven, just as that of Hippocrates in 400 B.C. The ideas of Hippocrates revolved around a possible response to illness. Hippocrates stated that the yawn served to release bad air from the bodies of those suffering from fever. This idea goes along with Gallup’s cooling theory. Unfortunately, there is still no evidence of these theories. The yawn preservers with unknown intention.

Yawn Inducing Scenarios

Yawning seems to be more prevalent during times of fatigue. The action also prevails when individuals are feeling bored or hungry. These situations are all times when our bodies seem to be returning to primitive actions. Our willpower tends to give way to basic physical needs when we are tired or hungry. We often lose the ability to pay attention to work or studies during these times. Driving and other actions can also become dangerous when fatigue sets in.

Yawning is noticed during times when our bodies and minds revert to basic needs.

Boredom also elicits repetitive yawning, in some cases. This is another time when our minds begin to wander and we reach a more relaxed state. The lack of environmental stimulation sends the mind into a more basic state. It may not be far-fetched, after all, to assume someone is bored in your company if they begin to yawn.

Signal and Stimulation

Several considerations of yawn purposes have been explored by scientists. Since yawns often happen during times of exhaustion and low stimulation, it is possible the yawn is an attempt to return the brain to a more alert state. Physical action often helps to wake up those who are feeling sleepy A sudden alertness due to a subconscious yawn may divert an individual from danger.

Another theory suggests that the yawn is a signal to others for assistance. The social dependence of human and primate groups suggests an awareness of each other. A yawn in this context would be considered a signal to others in the group. If a yawn indeed appears during a decline in attentiveness, help may be necessary. In an ideal cultural setting, peers would offer food, a place to rest, or medical help.

Paralyzed Individuals

Studies in the early 1900’s brought attention to the effects of yawning on paralyzed individuals. Motor control often returned temporarily during a yawn. The paralysis ceased to exist for the entire duration of the yawn. This phenomenon may be due to the subconscious nature of yawning. There is no thinking or premeditation that is noticeable when yawning takes place. The body simply reacts. Many patients suffering from paralysis were able to move and stretch their fingers during their yawns. The ability of the brain to bypass a current disability when presented with the need to yawn opens up many research possibilities.


Yawns are known to be contagious and several theories site possible reasons for this. Empathic tendencies were thought to play a part at some time, however, personality studies did not backup the actions. The contagion did show some species and ethnic specific prevalence. In both chimpanzees and humans, yawning was more likely to be passed on to group or family members. Humans were also less likely to yawn after seeing animals yawn and vice versa. Yawning in response to others proved to be more possible with those in close relationships and those who share familiar physical attributes. While there is evidence of contagion and its specifics, the reason for the spread is still unclear.

The urge to yawn is familiar to everyone, even across species. This misunderstood action is deeply rooted in our development. The fetus, babies, and chimpanzees all succumb to the act of yawning. Several theories have emerged over the years in hopes of fully explaining the purpose of the yawn. The jury is still out on whether it is a signal, a wake-up call, or an empathetic response. Continuously present in humans and animals, the yawn shows no signs of dissipating. Pay attention to your body the next time you yawn. What is it trying to tell you, or your peers?


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