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A Smattering of Yawns

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

compiled by Emil Filterbag, AIR staff

Yawning is a cavernously immense subject. The list of research  reports about yawning stretches on and on. You can find yawning bibliographies in several places. One of the best is in Wolter Seuntjens’ Ph.D. thesis, which has been published in book form. (For details about that, see the article “On Yawning; or, The Hidden Sexuality of the Human Yawn.” Another is on the web at

From among the hundreds of yawning reports, here are three, each from a different era. Some yawning scientists consider these to be classics.

“Psychogenic Sneezing and Yawning,”, Harry H. Shilkret, Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 11, 1949, pp. 127-8. Shilkret explains:

A case is presented of a female patient suffering with almost continuous sneezing spells occasionally interrupted with  brief  periods  of  yawning. “Gun powder smoke” was  alleged to have initiated the  trouble. Standard tests, including inhalation of various mixtures of “gun powder smoke” failed to reveal any allergy. Both the disappearance and the recurrence of the symptoms were brought about through suggestion. It was concluded that the symptoms were purely psychogenic in origin.

“Boredom and the Yawn,” Linda A. Bell, Review of Existential Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 17, no. 1, 1980-1981, pp. 91-100. In it, Bell:

Discusses Sartre’s views in Nausea on boredom and the yawn, asserting that boredom is connected with facticity -- the aspect of self most closely connected with the being of things--and not with freedom and transcendence. This state is contrasted with an authentic embrace of freedom and transcendence. It is concluded that individuals can become bored with their own freedom and that boredom, or its possibility, plays a role in an ethics of authenticity developing out of Sartre’s thought.

“Yawning?” Francis Schiller, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, vol. 11, no. 4, December 2002. pp. 392-401. Even the abstract is a classic:

Since antiquity yawning has attracted a moderate interest among philosophers, psychologists, physiologists, as well as educators, moralists and physicians. Organisms from birds to men and from the womb to the deathbed were  found  to  be  displaying  it.  While  sometimes  satisfying  to  the  producer, its display is offensive to the lay observer. Hippocrates had it on his lists of useful ‘natures.’ Aristotle dropped a few words on the matter. Boerhaave elevated its function to the intellect of animals. Haller has commented on its relation to the acoustic system, blood-flow, and baby sleep. Darwin mentioned it in connection with emotional behavior. Some modern authors praised its beneficial effects on respiration and smell. In the 1960s, Ashley Montagu tried to correct the contemporary failure to explain the behavior by the fact of raised CO2 and arterial compression.

It also interested some neurologists, especially in its association with the encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s, with ‘spasmodic yawning,’ with epilepsy, not to speak of hysteria. As to boredom or its stimulus, a 40-page dissertation survives from the court of Frederick the Great of the 18th century condemning idleness, a subject that also inspired Blaise Pascal and William James. But in the Hindu world, public yawning was a religious offense


This article is republished with permission from the January-February 2005 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can purchase back issues of the magazine or subscribe to receive future issues in pdf form. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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