Judith E. Glaser is one of the most innovative and pioneering change agents in the consulting industry. She is the world’s leading authority on WE-centric Leadership. Through her dynamic, interactive and provocative keynotes and leadership summits, she has introduced her powerful transformative technologies to CEO’s and their teams at major Fortune 500 companies. Benchmark works at the intersection of leadership, brand and culture.
It Started with a Yawn
Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I wrote a paper called "It Started with a Yawn." I noticed that when people got together and one person yawned, others yawned within seconds afterwards. Some researchers have claimed that yawning could control brain temperature so that it does not reach extremes.
A team of researchers led by Andrew Gallup of Princeton University analyzed the pattern of yawning in people during winters and summers and found that a significantly higher number of participants yawned in the winter then they did during summers. This led the researchers to think that yawning must be serving the purpose of regulating brain temperature so that it stays within permissible limits.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience, the study is said to have involved 160 people from Tucson and another 80 from Arizona in both the seasons.
I Observe and I Am Curious...
Since I was young, I have been watching, noticing and wondering why people yawn. I have noticed that people yawn together. When someone yawns, others around them often yawn as well. It is as though they are mimicking each other.
I've also noticed that people yawn when someone they are talking with 'talks for a long time' about a complex subject that they are not fully following. 'Metaphorically it's like communicating "enough, I can't hold that much information in my brain." or "I can't understand what you are saying - I can't grasp it all."
I am curious about the connection between "yawning to regulate temperature" and "people yawning together" - either as a mimicking response or as a possible overload response.
In the case of Overload ... Angelika Dimoka, a neuroscientist from Temple University Fox School of Business has been studying overload and decision-making.
In her study, researchers gave people a bidding task with lots of information to work with in order to make their decisions. As the researchers gave the bidders more and more information, activity in the dorsolateral PFC suddenly fell off as if a circuit breaker had popped." The bidders reached cognitive and information overload," says Dimoka. They start making stupid mistakes and bad choices because the brain region responsible for smart decision-making has essentially left the premises. For the same reason, their frustration and anxiety soar: the brain's emotion regions -previously held in check by the dorsolateral PFC - run as wild as toddlers on a sugar high. The two effects build on one another. "With too much information, " says Dimoka, "people's decisions make less and less sense." (Newsweek, February 27, 2010, Sharon Beagley)
If we use this new information about cognitive overload, we can see that our whole brain state shifts when we are called upon to deal with and comprehend complex subjects. Overload causes us to shut down the parts of the brain needed to think.
Yawning may help restore a state of equilibrium. Breathing may slow our heart rate and enable us to get into a higher state of coherence. When we yawn, it's possible we are calling upon our ability to restore a state of clarity, openness and receptivity.
In the Case of Mimicking...Is Yawning Contagious?
While yawning is often associated with being tired and needing more oxygen in the bloodstream, people yawn for many reasons including stress, boredom, emotion and over-work.
Yawning together with others suggests another fascinating principle about human behavior. Yawning may be contagious. Is it possible that what triggers people to yawn together is a herding response - a subtle way to communicate group behavior - such as when one bird in a flock flies and the others follow the behavior of that one bird so they all rise together as a whole flock.
When one person yawns it appears to cause another person to yawn. Researchers have found that 40-60% of people who see a picture of someone yawning will yawn themselves. Even reading the word YAWN can make people yawn.
Here's a great video Discovery Channel's MythBusters on why we yawn:
Maybe a yawn is a signal to the group that it's time to go to sleep. Or, if someone yawns when they're bored, it may be a sign to change the topic of conversation.
Yawning is not limited to humans. Animals of all types yawn. If you have a dog or cat, you've probably seen your pet yawn several times. Even some birds yawn, such as cockatiel parrots, Adelie penguins and Emperor penguins.
What we do know is that yawning helps replenish the levels of oxygen in the blood, and may help regulate our body temperature. The same chemicals in our brain that affect our moods and emotions also cause us to yawn.
Ancient Greeks started the ritual of covering your mouth when you yawn so that your soul does not escape!
Notice when people yawn ... what is going on in the conversation? What might trigger the need for more oxygen? Why might a deep breath be needed? Why is this conversation having such an impact at the deep visceral level?
Maybe there are times we need to breathe new life into a situation, a conversation or relationship. Think about it...notice it...reflect on it...and talk about it with others...it's a phenomenon of nature.
Trust at the Moment of Contact
In my new book on trust, I talk about the most important social forces that are hardwired into our DNA and drive our 'humanity.' Whether we were around three thousand years ago, or we are living today, these forces guide our interactions with each other. We are still struggling to figure it out, to work it through, and to find ways to emerge more whole and more humanized as a global community. You can check out three sample chapters here.
Judith E. Glaser is the author of two best selling business books: Creating WE: Change I-Thinking to We-Thinking & Build a Healthy Thriving Organization - winner of the Bronze Award in the Leadership Category of the 2008 Axiom Business Book Awards, and The DNA of Leadership; the DVD and Workshop titled The Leadership Secret of Gregory Goose; and editor and contributor of 42 Rule for Creating WE, an Amazon bestseller. Learn more about her online at: www.benchmarkcommunicationsinc.com.