Why do we yawn? It’s not because we’re bored. How often do you yawn because you’re bored? We take in more oxygen when we yawn. Maybe we need more oxygen. I believe yawning was a signal we developed before we used language. It might have been a way to show our teeth before fighting. Have you ever noticed that you sometimes yawn when you’re nervous? I always thought I yawned before a test because I was tired after staying up all night. I thought I yawned before surgery while I was in residency because I had been on call the night before. I never really put much thought to it, until recently when I began to notice that I often yawn before horse competitions. My trainer will be giving me tips on how to go in there and win, and I’m yawning away.
Sometimes I yawn toward the end of a meeting. Sometimes at the end of a long dinner. Do I look bored? Or is it a transition? An involuntary way of saying “it’s time for something else.”
So picture a group of cavemen sitting around a camp fire. It’s late. The sun is down. Do cavemen just start falling asleep, laying down in place while the others are still picking their skin and grunting? Does the first caveman to fall asleep feel safe, there in the midst of those with whom he competes for food and women? No. He most certainly doesn’t. So the strongest, most anxious one yawns. Shows his teeth. It’s a signal. A signal that it’s time for something else. And because he has big teeth, the others know that it’s time for them to do something else as well. And if it’s a Paleolithic night and there’s no light, then it’s time for nigh-night.
So back to my theories regarding the basis of so much of the way we are being the way our early ancestors were: the caveman with the best, most directive yawn, survived. He got to tell everyone else it was time to go to sleep. No one stayed up after he gave his signal and therefore no one got to beat him over the head after he closed his eyes. He got the food. He got the chicks. He got to pass on his strong yawning genes. Girls…don’t get turned off by the guy who yawns at the end of a date. Go for the guy with the best yawn. He’s not bored. He’s just telling you “it’s time for something else.”
I got a little off the subject of getting sleep. I just think that’s an interesting way to look at yawning. But suffice it to say when the yawning started…everyone went to sleep. And it was dark. And quiet in a Paleolithic kind of way. There was probably a certain level of noise, but it was predictable…and it was white noise. Think about the noise of crickets when you live in the country or camp out. The crickets stop if they hear a loud human noise. Otherwise they just keep on chirping.
Cavemen didn’t have cell phone battery lights shining in their eyes. They didn’t have fire alarm lights flashing all night long. They didn’t have glowing clocks or motion detector lights. They didn’t have green “alarm ready” or red “alarm on” lights.
Are your eyes closed at night? Have you ever watched someone else sleep? Their lids are always cracked open a tiny amount and you can see their irises moving back and forth. Of course you can make stupid faces or gestures and they won’t wake up, but somewhere in there, the brain knows there are lights flashing. What your brain should be doing is recognizing sunlight as it rises over the horizon. Time to wake up!
And time to quit for the day. Actual tips to get more sleep later.