Why Do We Yawn + Are Yawns Really Contagious?

February 25, 2022 | Casper Editorial Team

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice.

Everyone yawns, whether it’s at the crack of dawn, late into an all-nighter, or halfway through a midday work meeting. If you see someone else yawn, you’ll often find yourself doing it, too. So why do we yawn — and why are yawns so contagious?

We all understand that it’s a sign of sleepiness and boredom. But physiologically, the real reason why our bodies make us yawn is a mystery. 

Below, we’ll cover the main theories about why we yawn, why yawns are contagious, and advise on how to stop yawning during the day. 

What Is Yawning?

A yawn is an involuntary deep inhalation of air in which you stretch your jaw muscles and then breathe out. You may yawn when tired or unstimulated, and you may even feel more relaxed after yawning. 

Yawning is a reflex that everybody has, but experts still puzzle over what purpose it serves. 

Theories About Why We Yawn

No one has proven exactly why we yawn when we are tired or bored. However, based on various studies, scientists have a few theories. 

1. Increases Alertness

Drowsiness and lack of stimulation can often cause a yawn to slip out. But some people think that yawning actually helps wake us up when we’re tired or unstimulated. 

Studies have shown that yawning increases heart rate and eye muscle tension, making you more alert. Yawning can also activate receptors in your neck, called carotid bodies, that stimulate arousal

2. Raises Oxygen Levels

Another common theory is that yawning helps increase oxygen levels in the brain when the lungs sense low oxygen levels. However, this theory has been largely debunked because there is little correlation between yawning and oxygen deprivation. 

As explained in Scientific American, different regions of the brain control yawning and breathing. Plus, fetuses yawn in utero, even though their lungs aren’t ventilated yet.

3. Cools the Brain

Another theory is that yawning serves to regulate brain temperature. A study by Andrew Gallup, a psychology professor at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, found that subjects with cold packs on their foreheads yawned less frequently than those with warm ones. He argued that yawning, therefore, helps cool down brain temperature. 

4. Equalizes Ear Pressure

When experiencing pressure and altitude changes on an airplane or an elevator, yawning can help relieve discomfort in your ears. Therefore, there’s a theory that yawning might also serve to equalize air pressure in your middle ear. 

However, experts point out that swallowing has the same effect. So this probably isn’t the primary purpose of yawning. 

Why Are Yawns Contagious?

When you see someone around you yawn, you might get the involuntary urge to do it yourself. We’re six times more likely to yawn when we see other people yawn. So why is yawning contagious?

Again, no one knows for sure, but one theory is that yawning has a social function. Scientists have observed contagious yawning in other highly social animals, like chimps, dogs, parakeets, and lions. 

Therefore, some experts believe that yawning indicates social empathy. A 2005 study observed that when we see someone yawn, it activates parts of our brains that are involved in social behavior. We’re also more likely to yawn when we see someone close to us, like a family member, do so. So contagious yawning might be an empathetic response to someone else who is yawning, helping to build social relationships.

How to Stop Yawning 

Whatever the reason for yawning, it can start to get annoying if you’re doing it nonstop. Here are some activities you can do to try to stop yawning. 

1. Wake Yourself Up With Movement

If your yawns are due to drowsiness, try waking yourself up with some movement. If you’ve been sitting at a desk at work or school all day, you can benefit from some midday exercise. You’ll likely become more alert after light stretches or a walk. 

2. Try Deep Breathing Exercises

Try inhaling deeply through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Deep breathing exercises may help stifle those yawns in a pinch, especially if you want to avoid looking bored during a lecture or meeting. 

3. Lower Your Body Temperature

The brain cooling theory says that our bodies yawn to thermoregulate. Therefore, you can try cooling down to stop yawning. In a recent study published in Physiology & Behavior Journal, people who put a cold pack on their necks yawned three times less frequently than those who used a heating pad. You can also try drinking a cold glass of water to help cool down and wake yourself up. 

4. Visit a Doctor

If you’re yawning excessively and can’t pin down the cause, you should visit your doctor. Frequent yawning can indicate sleep deprivation or sleep disorders like sleep apnea or narcolepsy. It can also be a side effect of medication. 

Excessive yawning can indicate something more serious, like epilepsy, a heart attack, or liver failure. Your doctor will be able to let you know if your yawning hints at an underlying problem.

5. Get More Valuable Sleep

If you’re not getting enough sleep at night, you may find yourself tired and yawning throughout the day. If that’s the case, try adjusting your nighttime routine to ensure you’re getting enough sleep. A sleep calculator can tell you the ideal times to tuck in at night and set your alarm in the morning. 

Pay attention to your sleep hygiene, or healthy habits around bedtime, to improve sleep quality. Examples of good sleep hygiene include keeping a regular sleep schedule, unplugging from technology, and avoiding coffee and alcohol before bed. 

How you snooze at night affects your performance during the day, so it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough rest. At Casper, we’re here to help you build the perfect sleep setup for peaceful nights and better tomorrows.