WARNING – this news item on yawning is highly contagious. Don’t be surprised if just reading it makes you yawn.
An interesting research paper (on which this news item is based) by Andrew Newburg, director at Pennsylvania University’s Centre for Spirituality and the Mind, provides compelling evidence that yawning is more than just the brain telling us a little rejuvenating sleep is needed. It is one of the best-kept secrets in neuroscience. Yawning has been used for decades in voice therapy as an effective way to reduce performance anxiety and hypertension in the throat. Brain scan studies further show that yawning brings about a unique neural activity in an area of the brain called the precuneus, which plays a key role in consciousness, self-reflection and memory retrieval. Yawning therefore helps regulate our sense of self and helps us become more introspective and self-aware.
Some other facts about the precuneus – 1) it’s also stimulated by deep breathing, which is synonymous with Pilates of course. 2) it is one of the areas hardest hit by age-related diseases and attention deficit problems, so it is possible that deliberate yawning may actually strengthen this important area of the brain. 3) the precuneus is also directly involved in generating social awareness and feelings of empathy, which means yawning may even help enhance our ability to relate to and communicate better with others.
In addition to activating the precuneus, yawning also regulates the brain’s temperature and metabolism. It takes a lot of energy to stay consciously alert. Studies show that yawning can help the brain maintain optimum health thereby performing tasks with greater accuracy and ease. When our normal sleep pattern is disturbed, e.g. through too many late nights, yawning can also help reset the brain’s internal clock. In addition, it can ward off the effects of jet lag and ease the discomfort caused by high altitudes.
There is a stigma in society attached to yawning of course. It’s considered rude to yawn. However, with overwhelming evidence that yawning doesn’t just relax you, but brings about a heightened state of cognitive awareness faster than any other mediation technique, it’s time we embraced the activity with open mouths.
Given that we now know that yawning positively influences more functions of the brain than any other human activity, Andrew Newburg recommends that we yawn as many times a day as possible – on waking, when confronting a difficult problem, when feeling angry, anxious or stressed, when meditating, when preparing to go to sleep. It’s easy to do, takes less than a minute and gives your facial muscles a good work-out. To trigger a deep yawn, do six or seven fake ones and eventually a real one will emerge. And don’t stop there. By the tenth or twelfth yawn, you’ll really start to feel the power of it. Your eyes might start watering, your nose might run, but you’ll also feel relaxed, highly alert and completely present in your body. And if you find you can’t stop yawning, you’ll know you’ve been depriving yourself of an important neurological treat.