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Little mystery: Why do we yawn?

While the exact mechanism is unclear, many doctors believe low oxygen levels in the lungs trigger yawning in an effort to bring more O2 into the body.

Why do we yawn? Dr. Barry Make, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, says the answer is not because we are tired or bored — although that’s the common perception. Read on for his explanation.

THE TRUTH IS that we don’t completely understand why people, or animals for that matter, yawn. It’s widely assumed that yawning occurs because we are tired or bored or because we see someone else doing it, but there isn’t any hard evidence to support these beliefs.

The most plausible explanation, and the one that is taught in medical school, is that we yawn because oxygen levels in our lungs are low. Studies have shown that during normal, at-rest breathing, we don’t use anywhere near our lung capacity; for the most part, we just use the air sacs at the bottom of the lungs. If the air sacs, called alveoli, don’t get fresh air, they partially collapse and the lungs stiffen a bit. As a result, it’s believed, our brain prompts the body to either sigh or take a yawn to get more air into the lungs.

But certain aspects of yawning remain even more mysterious. Fetuses, for instances, have been observed yawning in the womb, yet it’s known that they don’t take oxygen in through their lungs. And yawning seems to be a symptom of multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions, for reasons unclear.

Another puzzling phenomenon is that some male animals, men included, yawn in association with penile erection (although it’s presumptuous to assume they’re bored with their sex lives).

Do you have intriguing questions about the grand puzzles of the universe? Is there an everyday mystery on your mind? Post your comments and conundrums to the “Mysteries of the Universe” Bulletin Board .