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Mise à jour le
24 mai 2009
in french
Yawning : popular knowledge and beliefs
O. Walusinski
Since Antiquity, yawning has held as little interest for philosophers, psychologists and physiologists, as it has for teachers, moralists and physicians. And yet, few things are as common as yawning. Everyone yawns 5 to 10 times a day. Yawning is a recognized behaviour in almost all vertebrates from birds to humans, one which starts in the womb and continues until death. Although yawning often procures a sense of well-being for the yawner, attempting to mask this behaviour is worldwild usual practice.
this text becomes a chapter of the book :
 The Mystery of Yawning in Physiology and Disease
Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience tome 28
Karger, Basel 2010
Since Antiquity, yawning has held as little interest for philosophers, psychologists and physiologists, as it has for teachers, moralists and physicians. And yet, few things are as common as yawning. Everyone yawns 5 to 10 times a day. Yawning is a recognized behaviour in almost all vertebrates from birds to humans, one which starts in the womb and continues until death. Although yawning often procures a sense of well-being for the yawner, attempting to mask this behaviour is worldwild usual practice.
Modern neuroscience is still looking for a complete explanation of its intimate mechanisms. But above all, its exact physiological purpose remains a subject of debate; some see yawning as a mechanism for stimulating wakefulness [1], while others contest this view and instead link yawing to sleepiness, but do not provide evidence for an arousing effect of yawning [2].
In this paper; we offer a broad-based cultural overview of the related conceptions and myths through comparison of the popular views of Arabic, Western and Indian cultures.
Arab countries
In 1921, Pierre Saintyves surveyed cultural beliefs related to the meaning of yawning. According to Saintyves, Islam sees yawning as a sign of Satan entering the body, and sneezing as a sign of his leaving the body. Assas-bou-Malek and others all date this opinion back to the Prophet: "The Prophet said that Satan endeavours to distract the faithful in prayer. This is Allah's way of testing them. One way Satan distracts the faithful is by dominating their thoughts, infiltrating their minds during prayer. Another way is by making them yawn to divert attention away from their prayers. The Prophet told us that yawning is prompted by Satan and gave us the order to avoid it whenever possible. When it becomes inevitable, we must close our mouth with our hand." [3].
We recently came across this question on a website: "I am a 22-year-old devout practising Muslim with a problem I hope to overcome with Allah's help and your advice. As soon as I begin my prayers, I start yawning involuntarily. And this continues even when I recite the Throne Verse. I really don't know why I'm yawning dozens of times, over and over, during a single prayer. I hope you can shed some light on my problem."
Saintyves also writes: "According to thn Battal, attributing yawning to Satan means he wants us to yawn and takes pleasure in it; he enjoys this disfiguring behaviour because it makes men look ridiculous." As to putting a hand over the mouth, this gesture applies when the mouth is already open, as well as when it is stifi closed, "because Satan enters...". Instead of the hand, apiece of clothing or any other object may be used. The fear of Satan entering the body is linked to the fear of possession, which explains why this gesture is demanded of the faithful during prayer [4]. W. Seuntjens call this idea : the demonic rationale of yawning etiquette [5]. Moroccans would place their hand in front of their gaping mouth because otherwise, it was belived, the devil would urinate into their mouth.
In India
In India, "bhuts" (spirits) are believed to prefer entering the body through the mouth. Yawning is therefore dangerous, because it entails two kinds of risks: either bhuts wifi penetrate the body through the throat, or a part of the soul might escape. Since it would be very difficult to recapture, the recommended practice is to put a hand in front of one's mouth and say "Narayan!" (Good God!), or snap one's fingers to scare the bad spirit away [3].
In Ancient Mayan civilization, yawning was thought to indicate subconscious sexual desires. In the same way, W. Seuntjens argues an hypothesis that yawning has an erotic side. He found that both the "yawn" and the "stretch" of the stretch-yawn syndrome are semantically and etymologically associated with "desire" and "longing for". In several proverbs and sayings yawning, and especially contagious yawning, is interpreted as a clue of something more than just sympathy, that is, as a sign of being in love. Yawning was both linked with acedia-boredom and with luxuria (lechery) and passion. As a non-verbal behavior the yawn was found to figure in the courtship process. That this is not a purely recent or western phenomenon was illustrated by passages from ancient Indian literature [6].
In Europe
Around 590 AD, during the times of Pope Gregory the Great, a bubonic plague epidemic raged through Europe, decimating the population and inspiring numerous superstitions: "Yawning was fatal then, and the habit of signing the cross in front of the mouth originated during the times of the plague. (...) There was a plague they called inguinal, because a bubo appeared in the groins, causing men to die suddenly in the streets, in their houses, at play, during a meal. Their souls left their bodies when they sneezed or yawned. This is why we said 'God bless you' to those who sneezed. Those who yawned made the sign of the cross over their mouths" [7]. Even the sceptical Michel de Montaigne conced that he made the sign of the cross before his mouth while yawning, given evidence for the education's power. In Austria, in the case of a yawning baby who was not able to perform the sign of the cross, an older person would perform this gesture in front of the in&nt's mouth in order to prevent illness ans bad luck.
It is possible that the love of perfumes in the royal European courts in the 17th and 18th centuries had its origins in the necessity to conceal poor body hygiene. Placing one's hand in front of the mouth during yawning was helpful in hiding appalling oral conditions and reducing the expiration of nauseating odours. In a 2004 editorial for the British Medical Journal, G Dunea was surprised to see medical students yawning frequently as they waited for their lecturer; moreover, 67.5% of the time they did not cover their mouths with their hands. He suggested this allowed students to avoid bacterial contamination of their palms, ironically adding that it is undoubtedly better to let others marvel at your tonsils than to risk injuring your elbow ! [8].
In medicine
In his treatise on wind, De flatibus liber, Hippocrates (1595) noted that "the continual yawning of apoplectics proves that air is the cause of apoplexies", thereby confirming his theory that "wind is the cause of all diseases" [9]. In 1739, Hermann Boerhaave, in his Praelectiones academicae, explains that "yawning and pandiculation favour the suitable distribution of spiritus in all the muscles and unblock the vessels of which sleep or rest may have slowed the functions", and that their action fights "against the excessive pre-eminence of the flexor muscles and returns everything to its place" [10]. In his 1755 book De perspiratione insensibii, Johan de Gorter was the first to describe yawning as accelerating blood flow, supposedly to improve the oxygenation of the brain, in response to cerebral anaemia [11]. Well into the 20th century, there were regular references to this notion, even though it had never been demonstrated. Even someone as knowledgeable and inquisitive as JM Charcot repeated this maxim without any critical analysis in his Leçons du Mardi à la Salpêtrière in 1888 [12]. The inaccuracy of this hypothesis was formally shown by Provine, Tate and Geldmacher in 1987 [13]. They had their subjects inhale air with higher than normal levels of C02 (3-5% vs. <0.5%). In response, the subjects' breathing rates increased, but they did not yawn. Likewise, when the subjects inhaled pure oxygen, there was no inhibition of spontaneous yawning at normal rates. Hence yawning is not aphysioloca1 reflex to improve cerebral oxygenation.
Askenazy JJ. Yawing : an Arousal Defense Reflex ? Journ Psychol. 1989 ;123(6):609 &endash;621.
Boerhaave H. Praelectiones academicae in proprias institutiones rei medicae. 1741-1745 Gottingae. A. Vandenhoeck (imp.) 4 vol.
Charcot JM. Leçons du lardi à La Salpêtrière. Bureaux du Progrès Médical et Delahaye A. Ed. Paris 1887.
de Gorter J. De perspiratione insensibili. Patavii. 1755. J. Manfrè. 328p.
Dunea G. On covering one's mouth (when yawning). BMJ. 2004;328(7445):963.
El Bokhâri. Les traditions islamiques (traduites de l'arabe avec notes et index par O. Houdas et W. Marçais). Paris. Imprimerie Nationale, 1903-1914. tome IV, 211-213.
Guggisberg AG, Mathis J, Herrmann US, Hess CW. The functional relationship between yawning and vigilance. Behav Brain Res. 2007;179(1):159-166.
Hippocrate. Opera omnia. Anuce Foes Ed. Francfurt/Main. 1595. Wechel héritiers d'André. 379p. (
Le Camus A. La médecine pratique rendue plus simple, plus sûre et plus méthodique. Paris. 1769. Gagneau Lib. 477p.
Provine RR, Tate BC, Geldmacher LL Yawning: no effect of 3-5% CO2, 100% O2, and exercise. Behav Neural Biol. 1987;48:382-393.
Saintyves P. L'éternuement et le bâillement dans la magie, l'ethnographie et le folklore médical. Paris. 1921. Emile Nourry Ed. 144p.
Seuntjens W. On Yawning or the hiden sexuality of the human yawn. Thesis. Amsterdam 2004.Vrije Universiteit. 464p.
Vâtsyâyana M. Kâmasûtra. Translation from Sanskrit W Doniger, S Kakar. Paris 2007. Le Seuil 430p.
Des dieux qui bâillent et qui font bâiller dans la mythologie épique de l'Inde Couture A
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