Last month, during the Vancouverage of the Winter Olympics, I saw a story that made me stop and yawn. Literally. Apparently speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time, has a pre-race routine that includes, of all things, robust yawning. Watching Ohno let loose with a jaw-opening yawn, just seconds before one of the biggest moments of his life, not only triggered my own yawn song, but also made me wonder; why do we yawn?
Obviously, people yawn when they are tired, everyone knows that. But does yawning serve any other purpose than to let your dinner guests know that they have over stayed their welcome? Apolo Ohno thinks so. Ohno told Yahoo Sports that yawning makes him feel better, that it “gets the oxygen in and the nerves out." That sounds good, and I hate to contradict an eight-time Olympic medalist, but it’s not completely true. Yawning, as far as we know, does not improve overall oxygen levels, but it does enhance attention and focus. Based on some recent brain-scan studies, yawning increases the activity of a small area of the brain called the precuneus, which plays an important role in spatial orientation, memory and consciousness. Yawning is also thought to help regulate the metabolism of the brain and serve as a means of achieving empathy within a group setting (interestingly, children with autism-spectrum disorders have an impaired ability to contagiously yawn). Thus, not only is a yawn a good way to keep us from falling asleep on the job, it may also serve to help focus oneself for peak performance. Perhaps there are times then, that rather than greeting a colleague’s yawn with a frown, we should take it as a sign that they mean business.
Of course, as is often said, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. People who yawn too much may be suffering from pathological yawning – triggered by disease or an adverse reaction to medication. Consider a young woman described by Gilles de la Tourette in 1890 who yawned 480 times an hour – eight yawns a minute – which, given that the average yawn lasts 5 to 10 seconds, is just about non-stop yawning. Clearly, this is neither normal nor beneficial. It turns out that this patient (who also suffered from vision loss and seizures) probably had a tumor of the pituitary gland. Abnormal yawning is also associated with severe migraines, clinical depression, and major stroke. People taking anti-depressants, in particular serotonergic ones (SSRIs such as Prozac), can also suffer aggravating salvos of yawning.
Notwithstanding these exceptions, for most of us, yawning is a useful activity. In fact, some experts encourage yawning – even if you are not tired. Sound impossible? It’s not, just fake a half dozen yawns and the real thing will awaken within you. Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind and the author of How God Changes Your Brain, writes: “My advice is simple. 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.” So, how about before the biggest race of your life? I asked Dr. Newberg, and this was his advice: “It certainly is not likely to cause a problem for athletes and the evidence suggests that it will help the brain function. Whether this ultimately leads to better performance makes sense, but has not actually been tested.”
It’s an intriguing concept, and if I can stifle my social phobias I might just give it a shot myself. Who knows, it could be contagious.