mise à jour du
15 janvier 2004
 The Journal of General Psychology
1942; 27; 289-294
Some psychological aspects of yawning
Joseph E. Moore
Jesup psychological laboratory, George Peabody college, Nashville, Tenessee, USA


Yawning is one of the first reflexes to be observed in the newborn infant. A number of investigators (1, 2, 4, 6) report having seen this form of behavior "at birth". Blanton ( 1 ), with an eye to temporal significance, reports that she observed yawning in one infant five minutes after birth. It can be assumed that numerous observers have ascertained that yawning is a reflex capable of being initiated "at birth" or soon thereafter.
The stimulus or the stimuli that initiate the yawning reflex are at the present time very obscure. Warren's dictionary (9) states that yawning "is a reflex, usually induced by bodily fatigue. . . ." The writer has not been able to locate a single study which supports the fatigue basis of yawning. The table in the back of Warren's dictionary entitled "Human Reflexes Frequently Treated in Psychological Literature" (pp. 311-314) giving the stimulus, the pathway, and the response fails to include the word yawning or any of the acceptable synonyms such as pandiculation, chasma, gaping, and oscitation.
Pathological research shows that yawning accompanies certain types of diseases. It seems to be symptomatic of epidemic encephalitis (7) and of some gastric diseases (5). Hence, the yawning reflex may be of significance to the diagnostician.
Yawning in animals does not appear to have been studied under rigidly controlled conditions up to the present time. The following statement appears in Charles Darwin's book (3) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: «Baboons often show their passion and threaten their enemies in a very odd rnanner, namely, by opening their mouths widely as in the act of yawning. Mr. Bartlett has often seen two baboons, when first placed in the same compartment, sitting opposite to each other thus alternately opening their mouths; and this action seems frequently to end in a real yawn» (p. 136).
The writer has observed a dog conditioned to "yawn" attempt the act several times until his efforts appeared to end in a genuine yawn. In undertaking the present study the investigator hopes to stimulaite research on this socially significant reflex. The present study should be viewed as being exploratory in nature.
The object of this investigation was to determine if the yawning reflex might be invoked by auditory as well as visual means. Three basic procedures were used in the investigation, each of which will be discussed separately.
Procedure N°1
This part of the experiment might be called the visual stimulation of the yawning reflex. Trained yawners and observers worked together. By trained "yawners" is meant the group in question practiced its yawning, or rather its imitation yawns, until the members could reproduce a realistic looking yawn. The stimulator would go into public gatherings and seat himself one row in front of the observer and start his imitation yawning at intervals of 10 minutes; until he had yawned five times. This type of investigation was carried out in three college assembly programs, three Sunday mornings and four evening church services, and three library situations. Four different denominations were used for fear we might get a particular minister whose sermon would produce an unusually, large number of yawns. Whether this variable was controlled satisfactorily is not known.
The stimulators, that is those who pretended to yawn, were all graduate students, four men and one woman.
The results for the college assembly group: To 55 imitation yawns the observers counted 21 apparently real yawns, not counting repetitions of yawns by any subject.
In studying the yawning of church goers the writer makes no claim of originality whatsoever. Church members as early as 1755 were interested in how much or how little a brother or sister yawned as can be seen from the following statement taken from the OxfordEnglish Dictionary (8) : «Strype-Stow's Survey II-Near to this is a large handsome monument, erected to the mernory of James Cooper of this Parish. Gentleman reinarkahle for his loud yawning during the time of divine service.»
The morning church groups responded with 10 real yawns to 15 simulated yawns. The evening church services failed to produce the marked results one might have anticipated, in the light of the fatigue theory of yawningbecause 20 simulated yawns only brought forth 11 real responses. This part of the study did not rule out the possibility of cross stimulation or the difference in the "potency" of the imitation yawns given by the various stimulators.
In the library, 24 simulated yawns brought forth 11 real yawns. This phase of the study was difficult to evaluate because so many of the subjects were reading and hence falled to see the yawn produced by the stimulator.
Pocedure N°2
In this part of the investigation auditory stimuli were used. Four imitation yawns produced by the experimenter were recorded on a phonograph record. An electric phonograph was used so as to get a constant speed. The subjects were taken individually and asked to sit in an office chair which would permit them to lean back, but the chair was not sufficiently high to permit the head to rest comfortably. No mention of yawning was made by the investigator before playing the record. The following instructions were recorded on the phonograph record: "Get into a comfortable position and relax so that you can listen without undue strain; in a moment you are joing to hear a person yawn, listen attentively but do not let yourself become tense-ready?" The subject was seated so that he faced a wall. A side view of the subject's facial features provided imeans of checking on any marked tendency to yawn.
Two groups of subjects were used. One of these was a college group made up largely of graduate nurses, and the other was a group of eighth grade pupils in the school for the blind.
The college students were divided into two groups. Nine women subjects were tested in the morning and 10 women in the afternoon group. In the group tested in the morning none yawned directly as a result of playing the record. Six of the nine said they "felt like they wanted to yawn". Four subjects reported a "funny" sensation in the jaws and throat. Two students yawned twice before the questions could be completed. Two subjects reported that the record did not sourid like a yawn at all, and one went so far as to that the record sounded more like a wild aniimal roaring than a yawn. The group of 10 subjects, tested in the afternoon, failed to produce a single yawn in direct response to the playing of the record. One subject did yawn after the record stopped. Seven reported that they felt like yawing and three reported a "funny" sensation in their jaws.
The blind group was composed of 14 sublects, 10 boys and 4 girls, and was tested as a group by means of the phonograph record. The experiment was conducted at 8:45 the second period of the day. Only one subject had vision better than light perception, and he only had 20/40 vision in one eye. Six of the 14 subjects yawned during the playing of the record. One subject who did not yawn during the playing of the record yawned during the questioning of the class. The pupils' respones to the series of questions were written on their Braille Slates immediately after the record ceased playing and before any discussion took place.
Eight of the pupils reported that they felt like they wanted to yawn in response to the record. It may be that the yawns emitted by the blind subjects were loud enough to be heard by those near them. No information was obtained as to the number of hours slept by each subject the night before the experiment.
Procedure N°3
The materials for this part of the study consisted of a motion picture film taken of a girl pretending to yawn. The film was taken at slow average and fast speeds, The girl who sat for the pictures reported that she actually yawned twice in a natural manner during the filming. We were not able to differentiate between the actual and simulated yawn when using a microfilm projector for enlarging the 16 mm pictures. The fact that we could not check the difference between a real and a simulated yawn may be a serious weakness in this part of our study and should be checked in future research.
Mention should be made of the fact that in some of the imitation yawns arm movements were brought into use and this may have enhanced the stimulating value of that particular set of pictures.
The film was shown to a class of 36 students, 35 women and one man, in general psychology about half of whom were graduate nurses. The room was fairly dark but it is quite possible that a person could see the individual next to him or her clearly enough to be stimulated. Immediately after showing the film the students were asked to write the answers to the following questions: (a) Did you yawn ? (b) Did vou feel like you wanted to yawn ? (c) Did you get any particular sensation or "funny feeling" in your chest, throat or jaws? (d) Did you feel tired or relaxed or both as a result of the film ?
The results from showing the film to the general psychology students were as follows: (a) Twelve students, or one-third, reported that they had yawned during the showing of the film. Six of these yawned while watching the first part and six while watching the last part of the film. (b) Thirteen reported that, even though they did not yawn, they "felt like" they wanted to do so. Five indicated that this desire came during the first part and eight during the last part of the film. (c) Eleven students reported that they neither yawned nor felt like they wanted to yawn, but all reported that they either felt relaxed or tired or both
It should be borne in mind that the controls in this study were admittedly not all they should have been. With due allowance for variation in controls for the different parts of this study the following conclusions appear to be reasonable:
1. The yawning reflex appears to have received little attention from American psychologists except in the observation of its appearance in the newborn infant.
2. In this investigation trained yawners apparently stimulated college students in assemblies and libraries to yawn as well as church goers in both the morning and evening services.
3. The phonograph record stimulated some of the blind subjects but few of the graduate nurses to yawn.
4. Motion pictures of a girl yawning seemed to initiate the yawning reflex in several students taking general psychology.
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