Yawning is one of the best-kept secrets in neuroscience, it is a powerful neural-enhancing tool. Yawning, for example, has been used for many decades in voice therapy as an effective means for reducing performance anxiety and hypertension in the throat.
Recent evidence that yawning is good for you
Several recent brain-scan studies have shown that yawning evokes a unique neural activity in the areas of the brain that are directly involved in generating social awareness and creating feelings of empathy. One of those areas is the precuneus, a tiny structure hidden within the folds of the parietal lobe. According to researchers at the Institute of Neurology in London, the precuneus appears to play a central role in consciousness, self-reflection, and memory retrieval. The precuneus is also stimulated by yogic breathing, which helps explain why different forms of meditation contribute to an increased sense of self-awareness. It is also one of the areas hardest hit by age-related diseases and attention deficit problems, so it’s possible that deliberate yawning may actually strengthen this important part of the brain.
Hence, yawning should be integrated into exercise and stress reduction programs, cognitive and memory enhancement training, psychotherapy, and contemplative spiritual practice. And, because the precuneus has recently been associated with the mirror-neuron system in the brain (which allows us to resonate to the feelings and behaviors of others), yawning may even help us to enhance social awareness, compassion, and effective communication with others.
You should try it
Try it. Force yourself to yawn 10 times and you will experience this fabulous technique. Don’t feel stressed about it, there is an unexplained stigma in our society implying that it’s rude to yawn, and most of us were taught this when we were young.
Yawning usually occurs when you’re tired, and it may be the brain’s way of gently telling you that a little rejuvenating sleep is needed. On the other hand, exposure to light will also make you yawn, suggesting that it is part of the process of waking up.
But yawning doesn’t just relax you—it quickly brings you into a heightened state of cognitive awareness. Students yawn in class, not because the teacher is boring but because it helps easing the brain’s state of sleepiness, thus helping you stay focused on important concepts and ideas. It regulates consciousness and our sense of self, and helps us become more introspective and self-aware.
Of course, if you happen to find yourself trapped in a room with a dull, boring, monotonous teacher, yawning will help keep you awake.
Yawning is also very contagious, when your friends yawn you start doing it too. The reason for this is that it helps people synchronize their behavior with others.
In fact, it’s so contagious for humans that even reading about it will cause a person to yawn.
Yawning, as a mechanism for alertness, begins within the first 20 weeks after conception. It helps regulate the circadian rhythms of newborns, and this adds to the evidence that yawning is involved in the regulation of wakefulness and sleep.
So what is the underlying mechanism that makes yawning such an essential tool? Besides activating the precuneus, it regulates the temperature and metabolism of your brain. It takes a lot of neural energy to stay consciously alert, and as you work your way up the evolutionary ladder, brains become less energy efficient. Yawning probably evolved as a way to cool down the overly active mammalian brain, especially in the areas of the frontal lobe. Some have even argued that it is a primitive form of empathy. Most vertebrates yawn, but it is only contagious among humans, great apes, macaque monkeys, and chimpanzees.
A real neurological treat
Dogs yawn before attacking, Olympic athletes yawn before performing, and fish yawn before they change activities. Evidence even exists that yawning helps individuals on military assignment perform their tasks with greater accuracy and ease.
Indeed, yawning may be one of the most important mechanisms for regulating the survival-related behaviors in mammals. So if you want to maintain an optimally healthy brain, it is essential that you yawn.
A chemical story
Numerous neurochemicals are involved in the yawning experience, including dopamine, which activates oxytocin production in your hypothalamus and hippocampus, areas essential for memory recall, voluntary control, and temperature regulation. These neurotransmitters regulate pleasure, sensuality, and relationship bonding between individuals, so if you want to enhance your intimacy and stay together, then yawn together.
Other neurochemicals and molecules involved with yawning include acetylcholine, nitric oxide, glutamate, GABA, serotonin, ACTH, MSH, sexual hormones, and opium derivate peptides. In fact, it’s hard to find another activity that positively influences so many functions of the brain.
You should yawn as many times a day as possible: when you wake up, when you’re confronting a difficult problem at work, when you prepare to go to sleep, and whenever you feel anger, anxiety, or stress. Yawn before giving an important talk, yawn before you take a test, and yawn while you meditate or pray because it will intensify your spiritual experience.
You can consciously yawn, it takes a little practice and discipline but it will make you feel incredibly relaxed, and highly alert.
Not bad for something that takes less than a minute to do.