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Several recent brain-scan studies have
shown that yawning evokes a unique
neural activity in the areas of the brain
that are directly involved in generating
social awareness and creating feelings of
empathy. One of those areas is the
precuneus, a tiny structure hidden
within the folds of the parietal lobe.
According to researchers at the Institute
of Neurology in London, the precuneus
appears to play a central role in
consciousness, self-reflection, and
memory retrieval. The precuneus is also
stimulated by yogic breathing, which
helps explain why different forms of
meditation contribute to an increased
sense of self-awareness. It is also one of
the areas hardest hit by age-related
diseases and attention deficit problems,
so it’s possible that deliberate yawning
may actually strengthen this important
part of the brain.
But yawning doesn’t just relax you—it quickly brings you into a heightened
state of cognitive awareness. Students
yawn in class, not because the teacher is
boring (although that will make you
yawn as well, as you try to stay focused
on the monotonous speech), but because
it rids the brain of sleepiness, thus
helping you stay focused on important
concepts and ideas. It regulates
consciousness and our sense of self, and
helps us become more introspective and
self-aware. Of course, if you happen to
find yourself trapped in a room with a
dull, boring, monotonous teacher,
yawning will help keep you awake.
Yawning will relax you and bring you
into a state of alertness faster than any
other meditation technique I know of,
and because it is neurologically
contagious, it’s particularly easy to teach
in a group setting. One of my former
students used yawning to bring her
argumentative board of directors back to
order in less than 60 seconds. Why?
Because it helps people synchronize their
behavior with others.
So what is the underlying mechanism that makes yawning such an essential tool?
Besides activating the precuneus, it
regulates the temperature and
metabolism of your brain. It takes a lot of
neural energy to stay consciously alert,
and as you work your way up the
evolutionary ladder, brains become less
energy efficient. Yawning probably
evolved as a way to cool down the overly
active mammalian brain, especially in the
areas of the frontal lobe. Some have even
argued that it is a primitive form of
empathy. Most vertebrates yawn, but it is
only contagious among humans, great
apes, macaque monkeys, and
chimpanzees. In fact, it’s so contagious
for humans that even reading about it
will cause a person to yawn.