What does it mean to yawn?

Dr. Sylvester Ikhisemojie

Every individual yawns several times every day. It is a baffling incident in nature and many readers have frequently asked about its meaning on this page. Some question why they do it so frequently and others ask why other people’s yawning tends to make them do so too. This article will try to explain this interesting aspect of nature.

Yawning is a phenomenon that encompasses mental conditions such as schizophrenia, empathy and sexual arousal; even primates such as chimpanzees also yawn. The process of actually yawning seems to be a simple thing, but it is now perceived as a complex series of actions that probably means a lot more than we have ever allowed ourselves to accept. When a yawn is starting off, the mouth suddenly opens and there is a rapid intake of air often through a partially open mouth. Breathing stops for a while and the expiratory phase of breathing becomes rather prolonged. Sometimes, we stretch our bodies as well and as we do all these in rapid sequence, there is some relief felt around the body. The entire process takes several seconds and some studies have put the process at an average of six seconds. The muscles tend to lose some of their stiffness and entire process appears to be a relieving experience.

The real action involves the muscles of the face which stretch with the associated narrowing of the eyes which may also allow some tears flow from them during the process. It is not a disease nor is it a symptom of any disease. However, there is more saliva being produced during that brief episode and the tubes within the middle ear known as the Eustachian tubes open up. It is now speculated that in the course of these events, there are probably changes to our breathing pattern and in heart related activities, as well as both muscle and nervous system function. It should, therefore, not be seen as a pattern of action that should cause us undue worries, but rather a useful part of health that often does several things at the same time.

We all know that we tend to yawn when we are tired, bored or sleepy. However, what is less obvious is that, sometimes, yawning does not appear to be related to any of these activities. Musicians have been known to yawn before they start their performances. Also, dogs yawning before they attack their victims have been noted as well. There are evolutionary biologists who believe that the entire process of yawning has had much to do with evolution and that it used to be thought to be a necessary process to remove bad air from the lungs. However, there are those also who say that yawning may occur as a result of too little oxygen within the body. From a scientific point of view, the fact of breathing pure oxygen or gases with a high carbon dioxide content does not affect the process of yawning in any way because both of them increase the rate of breathing without causing the person to yawn. Notably, if you were a good swimmer who would often spend several minutes under water, bringing your head up afterwards to get air would not increase your likelihood of yawning. If you do not swim, hold your nostrils together to close them off for as long as you can and release them suddenly: you are also not likely to start yawning as a result of that.

On the other hand, we are likely to be able to produce a yawn when we look at somebody who is yawning. That ability does not seem to be the case in people less than five years of age. That is also a diminished quality in the elderly who are much less likely to be prompted to yawn by watching others do so or by watching videos of those doing it. It is also believed that yawning has a way of keeping the brain refreshed when it is tired. People tend to yawn soon after sleep or just before it. This also tends to be evident at the times of the day when the urge to sleep is thought to be most likely. It is therefore believed that yawning may actually help to keep the individual consistently alert. This has yet to be proven by science.  What science has been able to prove is rather more interesting to be certain; there are said to be marked similarities between the face of a person who is yawning and the one who is experiencing an orgasm. It sounds somewhat strange but the science of it is not. Yawning is triggered by both male hormones called androgens and oxytocin, the female “feel good” hormone produced during orgasm. The connection is proved by the observation that most of the drugs which are able to produce stretching and yawning in laboratory rats are also able to cause penile erection.

It is believed that all persons have been yawning since they were still living in the womb. Chimpanzees, gorillas, bears and even snakes also yawn. It is clearly a primitive reflex and must, therefore, have been retained through the ages for some beneficial reasons. All that is not to say that yawning is not contagious among the susceptible population. Many people reading this essay will yawn several times before they finish reading it. Others will become conscious of that fact because it has been stated and try hard to stifle their yawns. All of it goes to show that there is a lot more involved than what seems to be the case. Among primates, the contagion of yawning seems to be more evident amongst the individuals who are physically and emotionally close. As primates have been known to live in family units and socialise in a similar manner, they equally tend to share yawns in much the same way. Dogs are also believed to be more able to copy yawns from their owners than from other people with whom they do not have a relationship. All of that goes to show that there may be certain mechanisms of social bonding involved in motivating these various animals to share yawns. In humans, it is irrelevant whether people yawning at the same time are physically and emotionally close.

Some behavioural scientists have often said in the past that yawning may be triggered by the slowing of the flow of blood through the muscles of the face, especially the muscles involved in chewing and in smiling or laughing. It is not quite clear why the blood flow through these muscles should slow down when the person remains active because sometimes, people even yawn in the midst of talking or making a speech. They can also do so in the midst of a meeting when they are even participating actively. All of these realities only help to demonstrate the fact that the entire process of setting a yawn in motion is far more complex that has previously been understood.

Ask the doctor

Dear doctor, I am a 52-year-old male. I noticed in April a small boil (by my own thinking) very close to my left nipple. So, I bought and took a full dosage of Zinnat antibiotic tablets. But till date, the swelling has not gone. Please what other drug can I take? 08023xxxxxx

You have made one mistake by taking a very expensive antibiotic which was not even prescribed for you and it did not produce any positive result.  The answer to your problem is not taking another medication but a visit to your doctor for examination. Such an examination may include the surgical removal of that growth for serious laboratory analysis because men can also have cancer of the breast. At your age, I would be very afraid of the possibility of having such a problem.

Dear doctor, I am diabetic and I eat wheat in my meal. I read your column in SUNDAY PUNCH on whole wheat. Should I stop eating it? What can I replace it with as I cannot stay a day without taking ‘swallow’ and garri is not good for me? Thanks.  07063xxxxx

That essay did not say that one should stop eating wheat. What it noted was that one should reduce one’s faith in using wheat as a major meal to control diabetes because the character of the wheat is not different from that of white bread, yam or potatoes. In fact, potatoes are probably safer than your wheat meal because they have a glycaemic index of less than 50. So that can be a good replacement. It is also not true that garri is not good for you. It is the amount of it that you take that is of importance. In other words, moderation is the key.

Dear doctor. I am having PKD, high uric acid and there is foam in my urine. I am 55 years old. I wish to visit you for better management hence this message. 07042xxxxxx

That should not unduly worry you, but the expert you need to see is a physician. I cannot be of much help to you because my training is in operating children.

Dear doctor, I am a young girl of 20 years but I am having a problem of mouth odour. Please kindly advise me on what to do because it is becoming an embarrassment. 0810xxxxxxx

That has been treated several times on this page. However, you should start by visiting a dentist for examination and advice. If what is responsible is not found to be in your mouth, the dentist will then refer you to an appropriate expert.

Dear doctor, I am 35 years old and I am in a relationship. Suddenly, we had a dispute and she left me when I was trying to make a re-union, saying that my sperm is watery. What can I do? 08037xxxxxx

You should go to a medical laboratory and get your sperm tested. They will give you readings for the sperm count, as well as other features in the sperm which you can then take to your doctor for interpretation. After doing all that, you can confront your partner with the results. Nothing else will persuade her.

Dear doctor, I want to say on the issue of fetish practices affecting health, that fetishism is foolishness. Thank you very much.  07031xxxxxx

Exactly. You have made the point accurately. I appreciate you for hitting the nail squarely on the head.

Dear doctor, what are the symptoms of a three-weeks-old pregnancy and is pregnancy test for urine real? 08106xxxxxx

There may be no symptoms as such because three weeks is rather early. Urine test strips are now very sensitive for pregnancy tests, but a significant degree of false positive results can also be obtained. Accordingly, a blood pregnancy test is still more reliable at this early stage.

Dear doctor, what could pain in one’s eyeball mean? 08146xxxxxx

A great many things can cause pain in the eyeball. Some of these are;

1)      Injury to the eye

2)      Infection of any of the components that make up the eyeball

3)      A foreign object stuck in the eye

4)      Glaucoma

5)      Sinusitis

6)      Optic neuritis which is an inflammation of the nerve that carries images

7)  Stye, which is the infection of the hair follicles on the eye lids.

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Source: Punch

June 4, 2017

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