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Yawns may mean you're a hothead

It's contagious. If you're sitting near someone who yawns, you will almost assuredly follow their lead.

One study indicates 55 percent of people yawn within five minutes of seeing another person do it. Blind people yawn after hearing someone yawn. Babies yawn in the womb. Just typing the word "yawn" makes me feel inclined to open wide, drop my jaw a bit and breathe in deeply through my nose.

Okay — I'm done. (The typical yawn lasts about 6 seconds, but mine actually seemed longer.) What is all this about anyway?

Yawning is a message — at least that's what I've always believed. For example, if I'm presenting information to a group and several people in the audience start yawning, I get the message. Or do I?

The most-often-held "science-based" theory, which is not based on any science at all, is that a yawn replenishes our oxygen level. The idea that yawning is a way for the body to take in more oxygen is untested. (Although, I really do think it meets the test of common sense.)

There's a brand-spanking new theory (tests are underway and they seem promising) put forward by a father-son team at the University of Albany (Andrew and Gordon Gallup). They say "yawning cools the brain." Their belief is "our brains are like computers, they only operate efficiently and effectively when they're cool."

According to the Gallups, yawning reinstates optimal mental functioning. If I carry that particular finding to its extreme, it means when I'm presenting information to a group and someone in the audience yawns, I should take it as a compliment. They're not bored — they're, in fact, so interested in what I'm saying they want to enhance their brain's ability to process it.

There are many ways of thinking about this. There's another body of research that says "sex" is the reason we yawn and that yawning has an erotic side. (I briefly considered giving you more detail on this area of study, but my "cooler head" prevailed. Yup, I'll let you pursue that one on your own.)

There are many theories — for example, there's the thought yawning people just want to show off their straight, white teeth. Or how about this — baboons open their mouths wide and bare their teeth (yawn) in order to threaten their enemies. I've not found that applies to yawning behavior in humans — but if someone happens to look you in the eye, and then opens wide and growls "¦ I would suggest you don't stay around to inquire as to whether that's yawning behavior.

Felt any urge to do it (yawn, that is) in the last few minutes? (I'm just checking.)

Superstitions about yawning abound. It's suggested some people yawn when storms approach. There's the theory that yawning is an indication of the "evil eye" (Greece) or that a yawn means someone is talking about you (Latin America, East Asia, Central Africa). The ancient Greeks and the Mayan culture believed a yawn was an indication that someone's soul was trying to escape.

Here's my theory. I yawn when I'm tired. A nap usually follows. Speaking of escape"¦

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human services at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.