“A yawn is quite catching/ you see. Like a cough./ It just takes one yawn to/ start other yawns off.”
–Dr. Seuss from Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book
In junior high, I took voice lessons from a lovely woman named Mrs. Thomas. She was a cheery, happy, bouncy person who rubbed irritably against my thirteen-year-old angst. During my lessons, she would encourage me in a ringing voice to raise my soft palate, the soft muscular area just beyond the hard roof of my mouth. Raising a soft palate while singing creates more room for your voice to resonate. It is also the first stage of a yawn. Inevitably, as Mrs. Thomas was encouraging my palate raising, she would produce several enthusiastic and unsightly yawns. I, in turn, wrapped in my teenage aversion to any kind of social blunder, would be silently horrified, and vowed to avoid, at all cost, public yawning.
Imagine my surprise, thirty years later, to read the following statement by neuroscientist Andrew Newberg: “Yawning is one of the of the best-kept secrets in neuroscience.” He continues, “It is hard to find another activity that positively influences so many functions of the brain.”
You’re kidding me, right?
I would have concluded that Newberg was a nut job if he hadn’t cited thirty-four yawn-related studies in the endnotes of his fascinating neurotheologic book How God Changes Your Brain. In his chapter “Exercising Your Brain: Eight Ways to Enhance Your Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Health,” he ranks yawning at number five, right before conscious relaxation and after meditation.* Newberg is not the only medical professional going out on the yawning limb. Psychologist Patty Lind-Kyle in her recent book Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain recommends using yawning as a conscious tool to improve day-to-day life. She calls yawning “exercise for the brain.”
Need to give a presentation or take an important test? Yawn a few times to sharpen your focus and enhance your performance. Can’t get going in the morning or running out of steam by late afternoon, skip the latte and instead indulge in a big ol’ yawn to raise your energy level. Jet lagged or acclimating to a high altitude? Yawn five times in a row to help your brain and body adjust.
As you may have guessed, yawning stimulates not just one reaction in the brain, but several. It is the Red Cross of emergency brain care. Research has shown that yawning regulates the temperature and metabolism of the brain, stimulates the prefrontal cortex, and triggers a number of neurochemicals and neurotransmitters. And, the effects of yawning are instantaneous.
Whew, that’s a lot of credit to give a socially inappropriate behavior.
But yawning might also be an act of public service since this highly contagious action helps diminish tension, deflect stress, and create empathy and sociability. Yawning during a heated argument with a loved one, or, as one of Newberg’s students discovered, during a tense meeting, can neurologically synchronize the behavior of the participants to the benefit of everyone involved.
Yawning before meditation or prayer is said to promote deep relaxation and enhance the spiritual experience. The percuneus, located in the parietal lobe and responsible for memory retrieval and recall, is directly stimulated by yawning. The percuneus is also hardest hit by age-related diseases and attention deficit problems. Could dementia and ADD be lessened by the simple practice of yawning?
According to Newberg, “Dogs yawn before attacking, Olympic athletes yawn before performing, and fish yawn before they change activities.” His point being that yawning resets the brain, fine tunes timing, enhances athletic skills, and increases accuracy.
This is fine and good, but who knew that fish a.) yawn and b.) have “activities.”
Yawning also triggers neurotransmitters that regulate pleasure, sensuality, and intimacy. No wonder Mrs. Thomas was so damn happy. This Valentine’s Day, instead of roses and candy, maybe you should present your loved one with a yawn. Or better yet, a buck naked yawn.
I bet as you read this you yawned a few times. If you haven’t, you should. Both Newberg and Lynn-Kyle suggest yawning as many times a day as possible. Newberg believes yawning is so important and beneficial to health that he encourages a formal yawning practice of twelve to fifteen yawns in a two minute period. If you have trouble getting your yawns going, Lynn-Kyle suggest visualizing someone yawning while you “fake” a yawn. Soon a real yawn will take over.
And if you can’t stop yawning? That’s okay too, says Newberg. “If you find that you can’t stop yawning–I’ve seen some people yawn for thirty minutes–you’ll know that you’ve been depriving yourself of an important neurological treat.”
*(Newberg’s list of eight ways to enhance your physical, mental, and spiritual health reads as follows: 1. Faith, 2. Dialogue with Others, 3. Aerobic Exercise, 4. Meditation, 5. Yawning, 6. Conscious Relaxation, 7. Staying Intellectually Active, and 8. Smiling. For a complete explanation and the scientific research supporting this list see his book How God Changes Your Brain.)