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E-briefing
A Real Yawner:
Causes, Concerns and Communications of the Yawn


Date: October 23, 2001
Contact: Mary Bridget Reilly
Phone: 513-556-1824

The daylight savings time change of Oct. 27 seems a "minute matter," but it's one that will affect all of us physically and psychologically. Our body clocks will receive a jolt that will manifest itself in various ways, including trouble falling asleep or waking up at what is, for our bodies, a different hour. And one of the physical effects will be an increase in yawning...and it's almost certain to do so, according to experts. Transition times seem to cause us to yawn - gearing up or ratcheting down the body, gearing up for or coming down from physical effort as well as ratcheting down from emotional events. And once one of us starts to yawn, the rest will fall like dominos. Humans, being copycat creatures, do indeed find yawns quite contagious.

So, the new dawn factor equals the yawn factor, and this week's University of Cincinnati e-briefing examines this little-studied, uncontrollable action of humans and animals: the yawn. But beware, our experts agree: Seeing or hearing a yawn, talking about yawning, reading about yawning, even just thinking about yawning....all will make you yawn. So, you can just consider that you're getting a head start on all the post-time change yawns we're expecting.

Table of contents:

I. Yawning is universal

A. The birds do it (o.k., the bees don't do it), but we do too
B. The chemical cocktail

II. What sets us off

A. We're trying to communicate
B. Synchronizing sleep or just a warning
C. It's transition time
D. Body's rhythm = Monday morning blahs and time-change blues
E. It's respiration and perspiration
F. It's EAR-ly, not necessarily early
G. Copycat contagion is real
H. And there's no stopping it
I. What's with the concealing hand to cover a yawn

III. Yawning in the real world: the classroom, courtroom or boardroom

A. View it as valuable feedback
B. Practical countermoves if they're sleeping through the sales pitch
C. Credibility concerns
D. Yawn appeal: you might be looking at a retrial

I. YAWNING IS UNIVERSAL

A. THE BIRDS DO IT (O.K. THE BEES DON'T DO IT), BUT WE DO TOO
Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and assistant director of the Neuroscience Program at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County:
Yawning's roots as an instinctive, unconscious, neurologically programmed social process are very ancient and widespread. "Most animals with backbones yawn and even some without. Dogs, cats, rats, snakes, fish, birds and humans all yawn. Fetuses at 11 weeks after conception yawn in utero."
Contact: 410-455-2419

B. THE CHEMICAL COCKTAIL
Dr. George A. Bubenik, M.D., of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada:
Yawns seem to be caused by the same chemical compounds (neurotransmitters) in the brain that effect emotions, mood, appetite and more - serotonin, dopamine, glutamic acid and nitric oxide. The more of these compounds activated in the brain, the greater the frequency of yawns. Conversely, a greater presence in the brain of opiate neurotransmitters such as endorphins, the less the frequency of yawns.
Contact: 519-824-4120, ext. 8786

II. WHAT SETS US OFF

A. WE'RE TRYING TO COMMUNICATE
Walter Smitson, professor of psychiatry and director of the Central Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati Medical Center:

Yawning is a powerful non-verbal message with several possible meanings, depending on the circumstances:

1. It's a not-always-so-subtle cue to spouses, co-workers, and bosses for attention, sympathy and a respite due to tiredness, stress, over-work or boredom.

2. An action indicating psychological decompression after a state of high alert. "I've observed that people on the spot, those who are the focus of tough questions never yawn. But afterward, there's a physiological and psychological letdown. They ratchet down, and a yawn is the first step to going 'off duty,' of entering the 'vegging state.'"

3. A means of expressing powerful emotions like anger and rejection. "Often, for whatever reason, people are not comfortable expressly verbalizing anger, boredom, disagreement or rejection. Thus, the yawn states for them, 'I'm rejecting you. I'm not interested in what you have to say. I'm not interested in you as a person.' It can serve as a passive-aggressive means to express hostility, anger or rejection when an individual isn't able to articulate those verbally. For instance, I've seen marriages where one spouse is giving such non-verbal cues, and the other isn't picking up on them, which further heightens the negative emotions."
Contact: 513-558-9015

B. SYNCHRONIZING SLEEP...OR JUST A WARNING
Dr. George A. Bubenik, M.D., of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada:
It is a form of non-verbal communications in group-oriented animals like humans. For instance, the yawn serves to synchronize mood behavior among gregarious animals, like the howling of the wolf pack during a full moon. It signals tiredness to other members of the group in order to synchronize sleeping patterns and periods of activity. Or, it can serve as a warning in displaying large, canine teeth and thus, proclaim "don't attack while I sleep."
Contact: 519-824-4120, ext. 8786

C. IT'S TRANSITION TIME
Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and assistant director of the Neuroscience Program at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County:

We yawn during transition periods, for instance, between wakefulness and sleep or moving from sleep to wakefulness. "A yawn often signals a change from one condition to another. You can facilitate the change from a more alert state to a more sedate one or vice versa." Yawning may facilitate such state changes.

We yawn when facing stress or anxiety. "Paratroopers yawn before jumping."

Or, when entering hostile or aggressive stages. "Monkeys make yawn-like gestures that we know are hostile or aggressive actions. Subordinate animals never yawn in the presence of the alpha male. But we do know that alpha males yawn or, perhaps, fake yawns to show their incisors. They may want a reason to flash their teeth as a possible sign of dominance or aggression."
Contact: 410-455-2419

D. BODY'S RHYTHMS = MONDAY MORNING BLAHS AND TIME-CHANGE BLUES
Dr. George A. Bubenik, M.D., of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada:
Yawning is a reaction signaling the change from sleepiness to alertness and back. (About the only people who don't yawn at this transition time are narcoleptics who fall asleep instantly without yawning.) This reaction is connected to an endogenous rhythm in the body governed by the body's time clock and synchronized by light. Any change in the daily rhythm, such as a time change, change in time zone due to travel, or shift work will thus cause states of tiredness, sleepiness and exhaustion that result in yawning. "Most people won't feel too discomfited by a one-hour time change. However a time change of, say, three hours is much more difficult to adjust to than when we travel over time zones or stay up hours beyond our normal routine on the weekend. That's why we feel the way we do on Monday morning," said Dr. Bubenik, who studies neuroendocrinology of humans.
Contact: 519-824-4120, ext. 8786

E. IT'S RESPIRATION AND PERSPIRATION
Dr. George A. Bubenik, M.D., of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada:
Yawning serves to increase respiration when levels of oxygen are too low and to improve oxygen supplies to the brain. "When I went hiking in the Andes and was above 4,000 meters, I yawned more. Similarly, exhaustive exercise is likely to cause you to yawn more." Dr. Bubenik also theorizes that men probably yawn more than women because of their large muscle mass...which would require more oxygen.

Yawning also helps train muscles for respiration and to clear the lungs of young children.
Contact: 519-824-4120, ext. 8786

F. IT'S 'EAR'-LY, NOT NECESSARILY EARLY
Audiologist Kenneth G. Donnelly, University of Cincinnati professor emeritus of communication sciences and disorders:

If you suffer from colds, allergies and other sinus problems, you might yawn a bit more than others. Sinus woes can interfere with the normal function of the Eustachian tube, which feeds needed air to the middle ear. The air pressure in the middle air must be balanced with the air outside. Usually the tube meets this requirement by opening and closing automatically with the help of muscles, especially when we chew or swallow. But when conditions interfere with this air feeding process, we must yawn to try to bring the air in the middle ear back into balance with the air outside. A similar thing happens when your ears feel full on an airplane during take-off and landing. The fullness you feel inside the ears is the air pressure trying to become balanced.
Contact: 513-558-0335

G. COPYCAT CONTAGION IS REAL
Walter Smitson, professor of psychiatry and director of the Central Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati Medical Center:

Yawns are indeed contagious because human beings are highly social creatures, very open to suggestion. "As humans, we watch each other and emulate one another. We're copycats. Another example of this is often seen with sports teams. If one player is very aggressive, other players become more so too. So, when I see someone else yawn, I know it's o.k. to yawn too." In fact, we're so suggestible that even reading about or discussing yawning can set us off on a yawning binge.
Contact: 513-558-9015

H. AND THERE'S NO STOPPING IT
Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and assistant director of the Neuroscience Program at the University of Maryland - Baltimore County:

We humans usually cover our mouths when we yawn in order to minimize the social damage, to weaken the impact. However, concealing the yawn won't make it less contagious because we have many other accompanying gestures that signal a yawn: narrowed or closed eyes, raised shoulders and a tilted head.

Virtually everything related to yawning will make you yawn: seeing yawns, hearing yawns, reading about yawning, or just thinking about yawning will make you yawn.
Contact: 410-455-2419

I. WHAT'S WITH THE CONCEALING HAND USED TO COVER A YAWN?
Walter Smitson, professor of psychiatry and director of the Central Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati Medical Center:

Because a yawn can express these powerful, anti-social messages, people try to mute or mask them by placing a concealing hand over a yawn. Smitson finds that, in his experience, men tend to yawn more than women. He theorizes that this is so because women are generally more socially aware and adept than are men.
Contact: 513-558-9015

III. YAWNING IN THE REAL WORLD: IN THE CLASSROOM, COURTROOM OR BOARD ROOM

A. VIEW IT AS VALUABLE FEEDBACK
Walter Smitson, professor of psychiatry and director of the Central Clinic, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cincinnati Medical Center:

The yawn is a great feedback indicator for presenters, teachers, salesman, etc. The yawn speaks volumes: It's time to end a meeting, lesson, or presentation. And if you're not sure what a yawn means, Smitson recommends simply asking the yawner. "In our culture, we tend to ignore yawns because yawning is essentially acceptable. We don't remark upon them, but they're a great means for reading someone's emotional state."
Contact: 513-558-9015

B. COUNTERMOVES IF THEY'RE SLEEPING THROUGH THE SALES PITCH
Andrea Dixon, University of Cincinnati assistant professor of marketing, researches sales failures. She knows a yawn from a client can be quite unsettling to a sales professional. "One of the first things to remember is not to personalize it," Dixon says. "Your first attribution should be that this individual just had a big lunch or didn't get his coffee this morning. Look at anything in the context, but nothing about it relating to who you are."

As with any good sales presentation, Dixon recommends taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the yawn. "Look at it as an opportunity to engage the person on multiple sensory fronts. "So get out some collateral material and get that person moving over to the small meeting table in their office to take a look at it. Get them physically moving and you've got a chance to get them more alert."
Contact: 513-556-7113

C. CREDIBILITY CONCERNS
Business etiquette teacher Lisa Newman, University of Cincinnati adjunct professor of communication:
Yawning "...could give others the signal that you are bored or disinterested, or if it happens a lot, and you appear sleepy a lot, it could bring down your credibility." She suggests that if you yawn, especially at work or in other non-casual situations, that you cover it with your hand, or stifle it, apologize and offer an explanation.
Contact: 513-556-4458

D. YAWN APPEAL: YOU MIGHT BE LOOKING AT A RETRIAL
Christo Lassiter, University of Cincinnati professor of law, admits that long hours and lots of details can be a natural breeding ground for fatigue and yawning. So what's a lawyer to do? "The lawyer can ask a judge for a five-minute recess, or ask a judge to admonish the jurors to stay awake. It's the same thing for the judge. There have been a number of cases where appeals have been filed on the basis of a judge yawning or shutting his eyes."

Lassiter says lawyers can try any kind of technique, from suddenly dropping a book, to talking louder, to even asking the judge to turn the heat down in the courtroom. "But the bottom line is it can get boring as heck up there, and lawyers are intensely into their cases and think it's the most exciting thing in the world. But jurors may not always follow. If you don't break up the monotony with a five-minute break each hour, it can get really monotonous."
Contact: 513-556-0096

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