Have you ever wondered why we yawn? Well, if you haven’t, scientists out there have been doing it for you. And turns out that yawning is a real head-scratcher.
To begin with, apparently everyone yawns and by this, I mean all humans, animals, including birds, even fetuses in the womb yawn! Now I’m sure I got your attention. So why is this completely involuntary and uncontrollable event taking place?
The easiest way to understand this is to see your brain as the hard drive of your computer. Just like the computer when it has a lot of stuff to process, it gets slightly warm, and that’s when your inbuilt fan kicks in. Well, with us humans our fan is to yawn. When yawning, we send cooler blood to chill out our ‘CPU’, which allows us to keep functioning properly.
How yawning works
This phenomenon works in two ways:
- When we stretch our jaws, we increase the blood flow rate to our skull.
- The inhalation sends a huge gulp of air into our upper nasal and oral cavities, which have mucus membranes covered up with tons of blood vessels that project up into the forebrain, hence cooling it off.
The forebrain is the bi-part of the brain responsible for receiving & processing sensory information, producing & understanding language, and controlling motor function. It pretty much does all the work for you while awake. A fresh gulp of air cools off the blood going up and makes us more alert, which in turn allows us to perform better than before yawning.
We tend to yawn when we do monotonous activity for an extended period of time. And this is exactly what driving is, especially if it is a long distance drive. Our ability to yawn during a situation like this is actually our brain trying to keep us alert and focused, so we don’t mess it up. In a way, it is warning us that our brain is overheating and maybe we should take a break and stop driving for a bit.
The why of yawning
How do we know that our brain overheats and this is causing us to yawn? According to an experiment at the University of New York at Albany, conducted with people holding a hot and a cold pack on their forehead – the ones holding the hot pack yawned 41% of the time, while the ones with the cold pack yawned only 9% of the time. If this doesn’t make it clear, I don’t know what will.
However, we are far from figuring out yawning in general. We might have found the root cause, but this still doesn’t explain why, for example, it is contagious. Why do we yawn as soon as we see someone else doing it? I feel like yawning just by writing about it!
Some researchers tend to think that it is social behavior and it’s our brain’s way of showing empathy. In the end, though, it is still an involuntary behavior which indicates that we need a break.
Yawning and driving
So next time you are driving and start yawning consider opening a window or playing some music or just stop for a short break.
Yawning does not necessarily mean that you are tired. But pulling over and getting out of the car will change your surroundings and give you something else to do, which will give your brain a second to rest and refocus.
This is especially important for truck drivers because getting tired behind the wheel of such an enormous vehicle means even bigger danger on the road. We wrote about the importance of napping when trucking, so it is always good to know what yawning signals.
A fun fact about yawning and driving is that for a police officer, it can indicate that you have had sleep deprivation and yet you decided to go behind the wheel. A Yawn Gun supposedly sends out a beam of light that is reflected back of the tonsils in a person’s mouth giving a positive reading for yawning and a reason to pull you over.
Ok, this has not been used by police officers yet (or anyone officially really), but imagine how cool it would be to have it available. In any case, we tend to close our eyes while yawning or at least lose focus for a second, which makes us dangerous on the road. So make sure you pay attention at all times unless you want to be written about in top annoying habits drivers do.
All in all, just remember to keep your brain cool while driving and it will keep the yawning away. Maybe try with an ice pack on your forehead, or just switch the AC on.