The Not Boring Science Behind Why You Yawn

November 19th 2015

"If I hear one more of these overly loud yawns, get up and walk the hell out! Yawn outside! Stay out of class, whatever it is you need to do to get over it ... You should be asking yourself, 'Why am I the one loser who has to [yawn] and 220 other people know better?'"

Cornell University lecturer Mark Talbert famously said this to his class five years ago after becoming fed up with a yawning student:

The two and a half minute yawning rant garnered more than a million views on YouTube, sparked numerous think pieces, and even inspired a line of Yawn Outside shirts. As with most viral stories, the reaction to the subject was mixed. Some admired Talbert for demanding better behavior from college kids. Others thought he needed to lighten up on the yawner he accused of being rude and distracting.

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Why yawning doesn't always indicate boredom or disrespect.

No matter your stance, the "Yawn Outside" story remains at least somewhat humorous half a decade later. It's also an extreme example of the way we view yawning in certain environments. Yawning, which is seen in animals as well as people, is known for sending a message of sleepiness and even boredom to fellow humans, but it doesn't necessarily mean someone is tired or disengaged.

Dr. Andrew Gallup, a yawning expert and assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Oneonta, told ATTN: in a phone interview that yawning is a cooling system for the brain that is triggered by rises in brain temperature. So, even though it's true that a person may yawn out of exhaustion, particularly in the hours surrounding one's sleep cycle, it can also mean the individual's brain merely needs to cool down.

"In our current society, we obviously see that yawning holds a great deal of social stigma, that if we yawn in the presence of others, it carries the information that we may be bored, we're tired, we're disinterested," Dr. Gallup told ATTN:. "Frankly it's not an accurate interpretation in many respects. This is an action pattern that is triggered unconsciously [and] spontaneously. We have little to no control over its expression, so the fact that it carries such negative social stigma is really unfortunate."

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Dr. Gallup added that mentally taxing situations can also cause yawning, and because school and work can obviously be very mentally taxing, it makes sense that one might yawn in such settings.

"It stands to reason that situations in which we're mentally taxed might cause rises in brain temperature, which would trigger corresponding cooling mechanisms to counteract that," Dr. Gallup told ATTN:. "Therefore, yawning might be elicited. To suggest that yawning in a classroom or a business meeting is rude is probably in direct opposition to what's actually going on physiologically. Rather, it's a body's attempt to [pay] attention and focus."

Yawning and evil spirits.

Negative reactions to yawning have been around way longer than our ability to upload them on YouTube. Dr. Gallup told ATTN: that old beliefs even tied yawning to evil spirits. According to a 2009 article from TIME, yawning can mean evil spirits are leaving the body during exorcisms.

"It appears that historically there have been many ideas about yawning and that they may indicate some negative type of action," he said. "There are some religious beliefs that yawning may allow the entry of negative spirits into the body. Very old types of ideas that have been around for a long time."

The evolution of negative reactions to yawning.

Unsurprisingly, the hatred surrounding yawning today mostly stems from a lack of consideration rather than a fear of malevolent forces. As Dr. Gallup acknowledged in our interview, many consider it rude to yawn at work, in school, and in various social settings. Even yawning in public gets under people's skin.

"Yawning is rude because it implies that the person speaking isn't interesting enough to keep people awake," a Quora user wrote last year. "To avoid seeming uninterested, cover your mouth (or learn to yawn like Isla Harlow). By covering your mouth, you are signifying that it's not a boring topic of conversation but instead that you are tired."

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Cousins Lizzie Post and Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute shared dueling perspectives on the social mores of yawning in a 2014 podcast, with Post admitting that a former boss harangued her anytime she yawned.

"I am just tired, my brain and my body need a little bit more oxygen," she would tell her boss. "And every single time, [he would still respond with], 'Am I boring you? Can we not keep you awake? Do you need to go home?' It was so, so condescending."

Post Senning, however, said he thinks that there's some middle ground between "obnoxious patronizing boss" and people who "have no control over my bodily functions."

"I think it communicates a lot," Post Senning said. "The way that your boss read, 'I'm boring this person,' is something you need to be really aware of."

But Dr. Gallup insists that shaming other people for yawning, particularly in a professional or classroom setting, is "so wrong," noting that yawn shaming demonstrates a lack of understanding as to why we yawn in the first place.

"It's absurd that an instructor or a teacher would feel that way," Dr. Gallup said. "It's completely ignorant to the understanding of why we yawn."

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