Why Do We Yawn?

iStock/BraunS
iStock/BraunS

The short answer is that no one really knows.

The long answer is that no one really knows, but there are plenty of interesting theories:

1. The idea that we yawn to get rid of carbon dioxide and take in more oxygen has been disproved by research, but persists as the "common wisdom" answer. According to this theory, people breathe more slowly when they're bored or tired and less oxygen gets to the lungs. As CO2 builds up in the blood, the brain reflexively prompts a deep, oxygen-rich breath.

The problem with this theory is a 1987 study by Dr. Robert Provine, who is regarded as the world's foremost yawn expert. Provine set up an experiment in which volunteers breathed one of four gases that contained varying ratios of CO2 to O2 for 30 minutes. Normal air contains 20.95% oxygen and 0.03% carbon dioxide, but neither of the gases in the experiment with higher concentrations of CO2 (3% and 5%) caused the research subjects to yawn more.

2.

Last year, a team of researchers at the University of Albany proposed that the purpose of yawning is to cool the brain. They conducted an experiment similar to Provine's and again found that raising or lowering oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood did not change the amount or length of yawns.

Subsequent experiments focused on two well-established brain cooling mechanisms: nasal breathing and forehead cooling. When you breathe through your nose, it cools the blood vessels in the nasal cavity and sends that cooler blood to the brain. Likewise, when you cool your forehead, the veins there, some of which are directly connected to the brain, deliver cooler blood. The researchers found that their test subjects with warm or room temperature towels pressed against their heads yawned more than those with cold towels. Subjects who breathed through their noses during the experiment did not yawn at all.

The researchers said their evidence suggests that taking in a big gulp of air with a yawn cools the brain and maintains mental efficiency.

3. Another theory says that yawning has more to do with sociology than physiology and also tackles the question of contagious yawning.

Almost all vertebrates yawn spontaneously, but only humans, chimps and macaques yawn as a result of watching another individual do it. Given that these are social creatures that live in groups, the contagious yawn may have evolved as a way to coordinate behavior and maintain group vigilance. When one individual yawned, the group took that as evidence that their brain temperature was up and their mental efficiency was down. If all members of the group then yawned, the overall level of vigilance in the group was enhanced. In humans, who have color-coded charts to signal how vigilant they should be, yawns may still be contagious as a vestigial response.

While yawns are still largely a mystery, here are some things we know for certain:

"¢ The average yawn lasts about six seconds.

"¢ In humans, the earliest occurrence of a yawn happens about 11 weeks after conception "“ while we're still in the womb.

"¢ Your heart rate can rise as much as 30% during a yawn.

"¢ 55% of people will yawn within five minutes of seeing someone else yawn.

"¢ Blind people yawn more after hearing an audio tape of people yawning.

"¢ Reading or even thinking about yawning can cause you to yawn.

"¢ While researching and writing this story, I yawned 37 times.

What's the Difference Between Cement and Concrete?

Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images
Vladimir Kokorin/iStock via Getty Images

Picture yourself walking down a city block. The sidewalk you follow may be obscured by shuffling feet and discarded gum, but it’s clearly made from something hard, smooth, and gray. What may be less clear is the proper name for that material: Is it concrete or cement? Is there even a real difference between the two words?

Though they’re often used interchangeably, concrete and cement describe different yet related elements of the blocks, flooring, and walls that make up many everyday structures. In simple terms, concrete is the name of the gray, gritty building material used in construction, and cement is an ingredient used in concrete.

Cement is a dry powder mixture that looks much different from the wet stuff poured out of so-called cement trucks. It’s made from minerals that have been crushed up and mixed together. Exactly what kind of minerals it’s made from varies: Limestone and clay are commonly used today, but anything from seashells to volcanic ash is suitable. After the ingredients are mixed together the first time, they’re fired in a kiln at 2642°F to form strong new compounds, then cooled, crushed, and combined again.

Cement
Cement
lior2/iStock via Getty Images

This mixture is useless on its own. Before it’s ready to be used in construction projects, the cement must be mixed with water and an aggregate, such as sand, to form a moldable paste. This substance is known as concrete. It fills whatever mold it’s poured into and quickly hardens into a solid, rock-like form, which is partly why it’s become the most widely-used building material on Earth.

So whether you’re etching your initials into a wet sidewalk slab, power-hosing your back patio, or admiring some Brutalist architecture, you’re dealing with concrete. But if you ever happen to be handling a chalky gray powder that hasn’t been mixed with water, cement is the correct label to use.

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Why Do You Stop Feeling Tired As Soon As You Climb Into Bed?

tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images
tommaso79/iStock via Getty Images

There are few situations more frustrating: After a day spent nodding off at your desk, on the train, and on your couch, you suddenly can't sleep the moment you crawl into bed. It's not that you aren't tired or have insomnia, necessarily. Like a curse designed just to torture you, the sleeplessness only seems to occur when you're in your own bed at home, a.k.a. the place where you'd prefer to do your sleeping.

This maddening problem isn't in your head. According to TIME, many people have more trouble falling asleep in their own beds than they do elsewhere thanks to a phenomenon called learned or conditioned arousal. Conditioned arousal develops when you inadvertently train your body to associate your bed with being awake. In many cases, this results from doing stimulating activities in bed. For instance: If you like to slip under the covers and spend 40 minutes watching Netflix before closing your eyes, you're teaching your brain that your bed isn't for sleeping. That means the next time your head hits the pillow, your body will respond by preparing for the next episode of Friends instead of releasing the chemicals that help you fall asleep. The same goes for scrolling through apps, eating, and even reading in bed.

Doing things that aren't sleeping in bed isn't the only way to develop conditioned arousal. If there are other factors keeping you up at night—like thoughts about your day, or that cup of coffee you had at 8 p.m.—they can lead to the same result. Your brain starts to associate being in bed with tossing and turning all night, so even if those mental and physical stimulants go away, the muscle memory of being awake in bed remains.

Conditioned arousal is a vicious cycle that can't be broken in one night. The only way to manage it, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is to minimize behaviors that contribute to poor sleep habits and to reserve your bed for sleeping (though sex is OK, according to the APA).

If you're a nighttime scroller, browse apps in a different room before getting into bed, or skip checking your phone at the end of the day altogether. When you spend more than 20 minutes struggling to fall asleep in bed, get up and move to a different part of the house until you get sleepy again; this will stop your brain from strengthening the association between your bed and feeling restless. The results won't be instant, but by sticking to a new sleep routine, you should eventually train your body to follow healthier patterns.

Of course, combating conditioned arousal alone isn't always effective. In people with conditions like anxiety and insomnia, intrusive thoughts and genetic factors can prevent them from falling asleep even under ideal circumstances. In such cases, the help of a medical professional may be required to sleep more soundly.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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