Irresistible Urge

It happened again the other day.

I was talking to someone who suddenly yawned. Within seconds, my own mouth was being involuntarily stretched open, too.

The contagion in this particular instance was even more puzzling, because the person I was speaking with was on the phone.

The phenomenon of infectious yawning dates back to antiquity. It was observed and commented on in 1508 by Renaissance humanist Erasmus: “One man’s yawning makes another yawn.”

Six hundred years later, yawns are still contagious. Yet researchers, scholars, scientists and psychologists remain puzzled about why yawns are so catching—and even why we yawn at all.

It’s a primitive reflex, no doubt. Two millennia before Erasmus, Hippocrates formulated a theory that yawning was a defensive device that preceded a fever. He postulated that the gaping mouth allowed for the expulsion of “bad air” that caused illness.

Yawning also isn’t limited to humans; it’s found in virtually all mammals, from chimpanzees to rodents. Contagious yawning, however, does not occur in species that do not recognize themselves in mirrors, nor in very young human children.

While nobody can conclusively explain the physiological purpose of yawning, spontaneous or contagious, here’s what we do know.

Unborn babies in the womb yawn as early as 20 weeks. We yawn when we’re tired, or when we first wake up, yes–but also when we’re not tired at all. We tend to yawn more when we’re bored, but people also yawn at times when they are intensely focused, such as athletes prior to competition or instrument players before symphony performances.

Even paratroopers, about to leap from aircraft, have been noted to yawn.

So maybe it’s caused by nervousness as well as boredom?

Theories abound. Do we yawn to increase oxygen intake? To cool the brain for optimal operating temperature (yawning does seem more prevalent in winter)? To help regulate blood pressure? To simply signal a change in undefined and unpredictable physiological states?

Dogs, which are keen to human cues, are highly susceptible to contagious yawning in humans. Interestingly, in research tests, dogs consistently yawn in response to a human subject’s yawn, but not in response to a subject simply opening his mouth.

In recent years, studies suggested a connection between contagious yawning and empathy—the idea was echoed by data indicating that psychopaths appear to be immune to the phenomenon.

But a Duke University study published in 2014, which claimed to be the most comprehensive look at factors influencing yawning to date, found that contagious yawning was not strongly related to empathy, tiredness or energy levels. Its highly sophisticated conclusion: “The vast majority of the variability in this extremely stable trait remained unexplained.”

In layman’s terms, go figure.

The Duke study showed two out of three people routinely succumbed to the irresistible urge to yawn when seeing others yawn. I’m certainly prone to the condition. In fact, just reading about yawning made me yawn quite a bit. I’m not even sure how many times I yawned while writing this column.

The most commonly accepted description of contagious yawning is that it’s a well-documented but little-understood phenomenon.

Which brings me to a decidedly un-boring topic—the presidential campaign.

The trouncing by Donald Trump in New Hampshire is a tempest in a teacup, if historical precedence holds much sway.

But this much is true: The American people are ready for more non-politician candidates. Trump has steadily defied conventional condemnation from almost every political corner, and still maintained popularity with average voters.

It’s unclear how we’ve gotten to the point that regular politicians are afraid to say what everybody is thinking. That’s not our heritage. On the contrary, some of our most popular and most effective presidents were plain speakers who rejected attempts at “politically correct” semantics when important policies were at play.

Go back and read Teddy Roosevelt on immigration. Or Franklin Roosevelt on how to handle “slackers or troublemakers” who opposed his interventionist foreign policies. Or even John Kennedy on racial issues.

In an age where every gaffe is recorded and replayed incessantly, it’s little wonder that career politicians try to stay scripted. But is that what’s best for the nation? Lovers of liberty have long been steadfast in this belief: the more public discourse, the better.

For one thing, more honest debate makes us better debaters. We ought to be able to talk about radical Islam without offending all Muslims. And about illegal immigrants without offending all immigrants.

Back to campaigning. There have been dirty tactics as long as there have been campaigns, and some of them have been pretty innovative, even if unethical.

But here’s one that I haven’t ever heard tried.

Given the propensity of contagious yawning, it’s surprising that one political camp or another hasn’t actively instigated an effort to make opponents appear repeatedly bored or tired. What if operatives were placed in the audience within eyeshot of an opponent at every major speech, and they all started yawning as the speaker spoke?

Negative videos and photos could go viral fast if a presidential contender kept catching contagious yawns on camera.

See? There really is nothing boring about yawns.


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