8 Fascinating Discoveries About Yawning

... including the influence of its sound, and its connection to sex.

Posted Jun 01, 2016

Source: Sergey Peterman/Shutterstock

Everyday behavior is fascinating:

  • Why are people judged negatively for walking faster or slower than the pedestrians around them?
  • Why is creativity viewed as sexier than intelligence?
  • Why do dads joke about harming boys who have a romantic interest in their daughter?
  • Why do we think that we are more open-minded than we really are?
  • Why is gossip viewed as a vice despite the fact that sensational news keeps newspapers and blogs in business, and these conversations help us know how to function in our neighborhood and workplace?

And yet much of science focuses on subjects like supermassive black hole winds; sewer systems in Ancient Rome; and using nanotechnology to build batteries—skipping over what might be most interesting to the everyday person. Consider yawning. Just reading the word might be sufficient to hijack the body, as you slowly open your jaws, squint, and take a long breath before a brief exhale. Yawning seems to be an inappropriate topic of scientific inquiry. But it isn't.

No matter how beautiful you are, no matter how beautifully you dress, no matter how many friends you have—nobody looks cool when they yawn. This is just my opinion, but what is cool is the work of scientists who have devoted years to investigating the nature of yawning to help us understand this underappreciated human behavior.

Here are eight discoveries about yawning courtesy of these curious scientists:

  1. If you see another person yawn, you will most likely yawn too. You may already know that, but here is a cool additional factoid: Yawns are equally contagious if that yawning person happens to be viewed upside down, sideways, or standing upright. You could be eating a hot dog on a bench while watching someone yawn while doing cartwheels—and find yourself joining in.
  2. The sigh-like sound of a yawn is sufficient to trigger a yawn in blind people.
  3. Children as young as two instinctively yawn when others do. It is unclear why, but there is a massive uptick in contagious yawns when children reach the age of four.
  4. There is nothing special about humans: Yawning has been found in pigs, monkeys, crocodiles, snakes, and even certain fish.
  5. The average length of a yawn is approximately six seconds. (Yes, researchers actually stood with a stopwatch and timed hundreds of people.)
  6. There are no half-yawns—it feels horrific (albeit short-lived) to suppress a yawn.
  7. When your teeth are clenched, it is nearly impossible to stifle a yawn. Don't believe me? Try it yourself: When you feel the urge to yawn, try to inhale normally while keeping your teeth closed. You are now officially masochistic. 
  8. Yawning is pleasurable. When asked by scientists, the average person rated the experience of yawning an 8.5 on a scale from 1 (bad) to 10 (good). Bonus fun fact: The facial expression made while yawning is virtually identical to the one we make when we're orgasmic. See for yourself the next time you're with your partner.

Science provides a way to understand the ordinary, peculiar, and extraordinary aspects of human behavior. Let us appreciate everything that makes us human. Here’s hoping that more scientists (and citizen scientists) choose to conduct humble experiments on everyday behaviors to discover new knowledge—and share it with us.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. If you're interested in arranging a speaking engagement or workshop, visit toddkashdan.com