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  • There is no better example of the power of suggestion than what happens when one sees another person yawning. When this happens, there is an excellent chance that the witnesses to this yawn will soon be stifling their own versions of this bizarre behavior. This phenomenon begs the questions: Why do we yawn and why are they contagious?

    If you’ve ever had to sit through a few hours of the folks from accounting droning on about the third quarter numbers, you know how strong the urge is to let out a big, loud, gaping yawn. Maybe even one followed by that little sound you can make in the back of your throat and a hearty, satisfied “Ahhh!” You will also likely appreciate the urge to throttle the next person who uses the term “counterintuitive” when discussing revenue trends.

    People yawn when they’re tired, bored or both.

    However, it turns out the yawning is not a complete waste of oxygen. Scientists who study this type of human behavior – they prefer to be called yawnologists – note that the purpose of a yawn is to cool the brain. Inhaling the fresh, cooler air invigorates the brain of the yawner, encouraging it to focus on the matters at hand, including the third quarter numbers and the counterintuitiveness of it all.

    The process of thinking really, really hard also burns some serious calories and ignites a lot of excess heat. The brain gets hot and it sends out a signal for a yawn, or two. The cool air is sucked into the lungs cooling down the blood in the capillaries, increasing heart rate and blood pressure and sending this cool wave to the old noodle.

    OK. Yawning cools the brain. We need that. Fine.

    So, what makes us want to yawn when we see someone else yawning? That is another story altogether and one that Charles Darwin would have appreciated.

    Other scientists who study the prehistoric lifestyles have theorized that catagious yawning was actually a trait that enabled these cave-dwelling denizens to survive. When a few of these early humans got tired or bored and started nodding off around the campfire, a woolly mammoth could sneak up on them and eat them. Needless to say, the genes of these unfortunate folks without the tendency to yawn were not passed on.

    However, if someone in the group yawned, it would show that the person was bored, tired or otherwise underperforming and others in the group (whose yawner genes had been passed on) would also yawn and the entire group’s brains were cooled and made more alert. Natural selection favors members of a species that survive and the genes of the yawners were passed on to us.

    Basically, yawning is another one of the body’s colorful functions. It’s not unlike crying when sad, blinking when lying or giggling when nervous. We've even invented ways to say that we're sorry for being bored – covering one’s mouth with a hand during a yawn is one example. However, yawns are nothing to be ashamed of.

    The next time one creeps up during waste-of-time presentation or reality TV show, it’s best to go with the urge and then explain to the others in the meeting that you were concentrating so hard on the (insert boring topic here), that you had to cool down your brain. When everyone else sees your yawn and also begins yawning, they can say: “us too!”

    Photo Credit Fickr Creative Commons: Chispita_666
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