LEAVE IT TO A TEN-YEAR-OLD
Ten-year-old boys, it seems, are especially good at discovering and exploiting
the quirks of the body.
When I was in grade school, my best friend, Peter, showed me this truly odd little experiment in fluid dynamics. First, you have to yawn. (We learned it’s pretty easy to make oneself yawn on demand.) Yawning does several things: it opens your mouth (obviously); it draws your tongue back and up; and it produces a rush of saliva (tears too).
While your mouth is still open and your tongue back, you force your tongue quickly down and forward. The little pool of saliva that’s collected in the soft pocket under your tongue gets squeezed, and, if you’re lucky, a few drops will squirt out, maybe a foot or two. As you can imagine, we had contests to see how far each of us could squirt. (But Mom, we were just studying our physics—AP physics, at that.)
(It turns out Peter was not alone in discovering this odd phenomenon. It even
has a name: gleeking.)
Yawning’s an amazing and mysterious thing. It crosses all geographic and cultural boundaries. Humans of all ages do it—even those in utero. Nearly all vertebrates do it, including fish and birds, but with the exception, it’s said, of giraffes and whales.
It’s one of those bodily functions that’s so ubiquitous that, like blinking or breathing, it usually comes and goes without our slightest notice. But have you
ever felt a yawn coming on, stopped what you were doing and allowed yourself
to be fully present with the experience?
Here’s what it feels like for me: it starts, subtly, deep inside my head. It’s like my whole cranium, or at least some compartment or sac within it, is about to expand. Then in my ears I feel some kind of passages opening up; it sounds like the two sides, coated with earwax, start out pressed together and then pull stickily apart.
My mouth starts to open, not the way it does when I talk or eat, but from the back, as if the jaw hinges themselves were separating—like the way a python unhinges its jaws to consume large prey.
The experience, much like farting,
is much more satisfying when you
really open up and let it rip.
Then the rumbling starts. Again, it seems to come from somewhere deep inside my ears. It's loud, but somehow doesn’t drown out the music and other ambient sound here in my studio.
By this time my eyes close reflexively. I notice I can keep them open if I try (something I’ve never been able to do while sneezing). I start salivating and my eyes water.
Sometimes I keep my lips closed while yawning—usually when I think someone might be looking—but the experience, much like farting, is much more satisfying when you really open up and let it rip. Same with that universal little non-verbal vocalization that always wants to accompany a good yawn.
For me, there’s always a tipping point in a yawn. Somewhat like a sneeze or an orgasm, it starts with an impulse, builds in tension, crests and then, inexorably, releases. Occasionally, it doesn’t quite reach that crest and fizzles disappointingly.
AWARENESS CHECK: I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but chances are you’ve yawned at least once just since you started reading this. See if you can be aware of the next one coming on. I decided to log my yawns when I started writing this, and in the hour or so it’s taken me to this point, I’ve done it no fewer than nineteen times!
There are many theories as to why we vertebrates yawn. The most popular seem
to be: that it’s the body’s need for a rush of oxygen; that it’s a muscle-stretching process (which might explain why it’s so often accompanied by the urge to stretch the arms, legs and back); that it triggers a surge of alertness when the brain senses we’re asleep on the job (this one seems counter-intuitive to me); and that it somehow helps regulate the temperature of the brain.
None of these theories enjoys common agreement; in fact, most have been debunked in one study or another. All I know is my own experience with yawning. Yes, like just about everyone, I yawn when I’m tired and bored. But, more curiously, I also catch myself yawning when I’m nervous or anxious. How about you? When do you yawn?
Simply writing about yawning makes
me yawn (doing it now, as we speak).
One of the most fascinating characteristics of yawning is its contagiousness. Among all the causal theories, none disputes this, although several possible reasons are suggested. Almost everyone agrees that it’s an empathetic response, one wired into the circuits of earliest man, perhaps to demonstrate our ferocity (as in don’t mess with me!) or even as a pre-verbal signal for a group to change activities.
Whatever the reason, this power of suggestion is undeniable. We don’t even have
to see someone yawning; we can simply hear them yawn over the telephone. And
I can tell you from my current experience that simply writing about yawning makes me yawn (doing it now, as we speak)—not just now and then, but repeatedly and often. (Since the awareness check, above, I've done it at least five more times.)
Are you aware of what triggers your yawns? Has reading this post, along with the inspirational photos, unleashed the ho-hum monster in you? Do you have a favorite memory or a trick involving yawning? We’d love to hear of your jaw-dropping experiences!