Yawn

I know I said that the next blog post would be about sleep, but I read this article in the BBC today (http://ow.ly/AeYgh), and was delighted by how well it related to things I’ve been learning about focused/diffused thinking. I mean, yawning as a brain-hack to higher function of attention?

Back up.

In class last week, Prof. Oakley differentiated between two modes of thinking: focused and diffused. When your mind is focused, you’re concentrating intently on trying to learn/understand, and your thoughts move smoothly along familiar pathways. Diffused thinking, on the other hand, is a broader, more creative mode of thought (similar to daydreaming). Diffused thinking allows you to draw new parallels, make new neural connections; focused thinking drills those thoughts into your mind and cements the neural pathways.

The two modes seem wonderfully complementary… but the downside is that you cannot be in both modes at the same time; being in one mode necessarily limits your access to the other. It’s not always easy to switch modes, either (as testified by anyone who’s tried to answer a question from a chatty roommate while “in the zone,” or tried to break out of an in-class daydream to answer a question from a professor). Some of the great artists and thinkers tried to more perfectly utilize both modes by building their own mind-traps.

Salvatore Dali, for example, used to daydream with a set of keys held loosely in his hand. As he drifted toward sleep, his hand would loosen, dropping the keys on the floor and startling him awake. He could then quickly take advantage of the thoughts and images he had had while daydreaming, before they slipped out of his working memory in sleep. Thomas Edison did the same thing with a set of loose ball bearings. Even today, numerous creative specialists advise placing pen and paper nearby when you go to bed, so that you can capture any thoughts that come to you as you drift in and out of the diffuse mode near sleep.

David Gahr/Getty Images
Dali: the man wears a moustache like it’s a verb. (David Gahr/Getty Images)

Anyway. All this is to say that one of the keys to creative thinking and analogical learning is the ability to switch between the diffuse and focused modes of thinking.

And now, scientists may have the way to create this key: yawning.

Say what?

I’m serious. Recent research by Andrew C. Gallup and Omar T. Eldakar (http://ow.ly/Af8at) suggests that yawning may serve a thermoregulatory function in human beings. I.e., your brain heats up, so you yawn. The rush of blood caused by your flexing jaw combines with the cool air in your sinuses to turn down the cranial thermostat… coincidentally (or not) also flushing your brain with cerebrospinal fluid that washes away some of the somnogenic factors like prostaglandin D(2) and adenosine, among others (see: Walusinkski, http://ow.ly/Af7Vl).

So what does this mean for thinking? According to Gallup and Eldakar, “yawning actually serves to maintain focus and attention, thereby antagonizing sleep” (p6). By cooling you down and flushing neuromodifiers like adenosine out of your system, yawning helps you transition more quickly from a sleepy, diffuse-thinking state into a more wakeful, focused one. It’s like a brain hack- a shortcut allowing you to bypass the dreamy moments when you might forget your diffusely-inspired epiphanies and go straight to the process of recording your brilliance for posterity.

(Though you may never achieve the heights of effervescent moustachery exhibited by the thinking-mode masters of yore. )

How can we practically take advantage of this research? Well, next time that professor interrupts your deliciously dreamy diffuse imaginings in class, give her a big old yawn in the face. She’ll understand that you’re just flushing your neocortex and cooling down in order to give her question all of the focused attention it deserves.

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3 thoughts on “Yawn

  1. Your blog is so interesting and amusing. And I was particularly interested in your reference to yawning. But have you found any mention of why we yawn when we see another person yawning? And we do. It is involuntary. Even seeing your pet yawn will cause you to yawn. Even talking about yawning will cause a yawn. ( Excuse me. I didn’t mean to yawn in your face?

    Patricia Claussen

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    1. Thanks, Patricia!

      Actually, there are some fairly well-developed working theories on why yawning is so contagious (as I yawn while writing this). The prevailing view, from what I’ve found, is that it is related to empathy. (To see how empathy can be tentatively traced to evolutionary neurological structures, see Frans de Waal’s .) For example, people are more likely to yawn when they see friends and family yawn, as opposed to strangers. How interesting is that?! (I wonder if you are more likely to yawn when your dog yawns, as opposed to someone elses’s?) Still, this is empathy in the structural, cognitive processing sense rather than the I-love-you-therefore-I-will-show-my-solidarity-through-affectionate-display-of-my-dentures; Gallup and Gallup (2007) hypothesize that contagious yawning evolved to enhance group vigilance, which would kind of bring everyone up to speed so as to react to threats as a cohesive unit. (Prospective study- are married couples more likely to catch yawns from one another in the face of in-laws?)

      As a side note (because I don’t have enough of those), there is a lot of ongoing research as to how individual social characteristics and modern cultural development may influence the level of contagiousness and when and how it manifests itself in yawns: see Anderson and Meno, 2003; Platek et al., 2003; Senju et al., 2007; Millen and Anderson, 2010.

      Did this address your question? As always, my caveat is that I only know what I read, so there is every chance that there is even more out there that I have yet to find!

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      1. Also, the actual references (or, where possible, links) for those studies:

        Gallup and Gallup (2007)= Gallup A. C., Gallup G. G., Jr. (2007). Yawning as a brain cooling mechanism: nasal breathing and forehead cooling diminish the incidence of contagious yawning. Evol. Psychol. 5, 92–101
        Anderson and Meno (2003)= http://cpl.revues.org/document390.html
        Platek et al. (2003)= http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12880893
        Senju et al. (2007)= http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2391210/
        Millen and Anderson (2010)= http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3097853/

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