- In science, the yawn has not received its
due attention. In this investigation I provide
(1) a systematic-encyclopedic overview of all
available knowledge about yawning. The fields
from which I derive my data are linguistics
(semantics, etymology), sociology, psychology,
the medical sciences (anatomy, physiology,
pathology, and pharmacology), and the arts
(literature, film, visual arts). Then, I (2)
associate a number of these data in order to (3)
test the hypothesis that yawning has an erotic
side, a sexual aspect.
- A Taboo, an Unsolved Riddle
- The mass of data that I present in the
encyclopedic overview makes one thing clear:
there is no good explanation for yawning.
- As regards physiology: the hypoxia and
hypercapnia theories -- these long-untested
theories that also figure prominently in
common-sense notions -- were conclusively
refuted by Robert Provine and his collaborators
(Provine, Tate, and Geldmacher 1987). The now
popular theory that yawning leads to wakefulness
('arousal defense reflex,' Askenasy 1989) is not
without its problems (Regehr, Ogilvie, and
- In the paragraphs on pathology and
pharmacology I enumerate so many different
illnesses and disorders that are associated with
increased yawning that for the moment it is
impossible to extract a common factor. The same
goes for the very many chemical substances that
induce yawning (Crenshaw and Goldberg 1996: 415;
Argiolas and Melis 1998: 12). What this common
pharmacological factor, if there is one,
constitutes, remains unclear.
- In the chapter on the psychology of yawning
I discuss various subthemes of which the most
concrete are: contagiousness, non-verbal
behavior, and conditionability. Neither of these
subthemes has been completely clarified.
Psychologically, too, the yawn is still very
much an unsolved riddle.
- In the chapter on the sociology of the yawn
I note that the yawn is (quasi-)universally
taboo. The reason why this is so remains
shrouded in mystery: the various rationales
given -- superstitious, hygienic, aesthetic,
psychological -- are all implausible. The
ethological rationale (bared teeth) may turn out
to provide the best explanation for the taboo of
- As a preliminary conclusion we may therefore
state that Reber's Law applies perfectly to the
hitherto considered trivial behavior of yawning:
the closer the yawn is examined, the more
complex it is seen to be (Reber 1985: 618). In
fact, we have really no idea what causes yawning
and what purpose yawning serves or what
mechanisms are responsible for yawning and even
what the essential anatomical constituents of
yawning are. In the age in which the human
genome has been deciphered and space travel has
become almost trite this verdict may sound like
- Yet, in the light of the hypothesis that
yawning has an erotic side, it becomes clear
that in the data that I gathered there is at
least one recurrent theme: eroticism-sexuality.
I found that both the 'yawn' and the 'stretch'
of the stretch-yawn syndrome (SYS) are
semantically and etymologically associated with
'desire' and 'longing for' (de Vries 1991:
- 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 (Schlossar 1891: 402; Hand 1981, no. 12964;
Beyer 1985: 187). Yawning was both linked with
acedia-boredom and with luxuria (lechery) and
passion. As a non-verbal behavior the yawn was
found to figure -- be it consciously or
unconsciously -- in the courtship process
(Howell 1659: 14; Mantegazza 1890: 126;
Féré 1905; Givens 1978). That this
is not a purely recent or western phenomenon was
illustrated by passages from ancient Indian
literature (Vatsyayana 1965; Biharilal 1990;
- Not surprisingly perhaps, the few
psychoanalysts and depth-psychologists who did
mention the yawn interpreted it as a latent
sexual signal (Meerloo 1955: 65; Marcus 1973;
- Ethological studies in primates found a
clear relationship between yawn-frequency and
hierarchical status (Bielert 1978; Hadidian
1980; Deputte 1994) and between yawn-frequency
and the serum level of testosterone (Chambers
and Phoenix 1981).
- In discussing anatomy and physiology I
recounted that Chouard and Bigot-Massoni (1990:
146, 152) described the feeling that accompanies
the acme of yawning as a 'mini orgasm'.
Moreover, the same authors concluded: "Let us
remember in conclusion its intimate and
unconscious relation with sexual life,
- In discussing pathology I discovered that
yawning and spontaneous ejaculation were
mentioned concomitantly in terminal rabies (Beek
- In discussing pharmacology I found a link
between yawning and spontaneous orgasm in
withdrawal from heroin addiction (Parr 1976).
Likewise, yawning and sexual response (SR) were
associated as clinical side effects of several
antidepressant drugs. In one publication an
undeniable causal relation was reported: both
spontaneous and intentional yawning provoked
instantaneous ejaculation-orgasm (McLean,
Forsythe, and Kapkin 1983). In experiments with
animals many more substances were seen to
induce, sometimes simultaneously, both SYS and
SR. Moreover, in humans apomorphine induces both
SYS and SR (Lal et al. 1989).
- In the chapter on yawning and the arts, I
discussed, in a somewhat more conjectural
manner, the conspicuously erotic sigh and the
equally erotic posture X. I argued for the
interpretation of the sigh and posture X as the
auditory and visual proxies for the SYS.
- My Conclusions About Yawning
- It is because of the critical mass of
circumstantial evidence that was accumulated
that all these data, passages, and quotations
take on an ambivalent or double meaning. Nowhere
is that clearer than in the use of the words
'yawning' and 'stretching' in the poetry of W.
B. Yeats (1989 : 379), as for
- O cruel Death give three things back,
- Three dear things that women know,
- The third thing that I think of yet,
- Is that morning when I met
- Face to face my rightful man
- And did after stretch and yawn.
- And what to think of the following passage
taken from The Prime of Miss
- Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1967
): 59) in which the pupils
- and Sandy discuss their teacher's love
- For this reason she was more reticent than
Jenny about the details of the
- imagined love affair. Jenny whispered, 'They
go to bed. Then he puts out
- the light. Then their toes touch. And then
- She broke into giggles.
- 'Miss Brodie yawns,' said Sandy in order to
restore decency, now that she
- suspected it was all true.
- This, of course, does not mean that every
yawn can be interpreted as erotic
- or even sexual: "There are times when a yawn
is simply a yawn." (Even if a
- 'simple' yawn is not simple at all.)
- In 'The Thinking of Thoughts: What is Le
Penseur Doing?' Gilbert Ryle
- (1971: 480) presented the example of the
blink of an eye to illustrate the necessity to
interpret individual behavioral acts.
- Equally, we cannot but interpret every
individual yawn as the occasion arises. In
everyday life each and every individual
- yawn must be interpreted, as it cannot be
ascribed to one specific cause, or be explained
with total certainty. Likewise, we
- face a 'prediction barrier' in experiment
and observation when predicting individual
- In summary, the two foremost
conclusions of my investigation are (1) the yawn
is -- contrary to common-sense ideas -- far from
trivial; yawning is an extremely complex
behavior. (2) The yawn -- and this clashes even
more with common-sense
- notions -- appears to have an erotic side, a
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Argiolas and Maria R. Melis, European Journal of
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New Delhi: Penguin India, 1991 [originally
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James P. Goldberg, New York:
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Impotence and Yawning," Samarthji Lal, Y.
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Penseur' Doing?" Gilbert Ryle, in Collected
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réflexe sexuel de
l'élévation des bras chez la femme