When my 4 sons were growing up we had a wonderful dog, a German Shepherd mix who tolerated all kinds of young boy behavior. One activity that never failed to produce peals of laughter was when they could get Alice to imitate their yawns. They discovered at a young age that yawns are contagious.
Yawning can be seen in human fetuses as early as 11 weeks, but it isn’t just humans and dogs who yawn. All mammals as well as birds and fish have been seen yawning. It’s particularly common among primates.
Curiosity about yawning goes back to the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates speculated that humans yawn to expel bad air when suffering from a fever. More recent research seems to support that idea in that the behavior cools the brain.
The more obvious conditions we associate with yawning are boredom and sleepiness. But studies about yawning indicate that it can be helpful in waking us up, when our lose our focus, or change behaviors. Maria Konnikova, in an article in the New Yorker, tells us that Olympic athletes yawn before an event, musicians before a performance and paratroopers before a jump often yawn.
Years ago I attended a workshop about the subject given by a psychologist. She extolled the benefits of deliberately yawning as do Andrew Newberg, MD and Mark Robert Waldman in their book, How God Changes Your Brain.
They report that in recent brain-scan studies that yawning produces neural activity in the area of the brain related to consciousness, self-reflection and memory retrieval, and they encourage frequent yawning for their readers. Waldman, who teaches in the Business School at Loyola University in Los Angeles, promotes yawning and slow stretching every hour to reduce stress and refresh the brain. I have found it is helpful. My problem is remembering to do so.