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The myth behind yawning
We’ve all been there. We’re sitting in class, trying so incredibly hard to pay attention, but our eyes begin to close despite all efforts to keep them open. Our heads slowly roll forward as we drift even further into sleep. Our bodies relax until all of a sudden we are awoken by a student trying to keep us awake or—more likely—we awake to an angry professor.
While dozing off in class isn’t something that has happened to me since freshman year, I’ve seen it happen to other students and I can’t help but feel bad for them. When students fall asleep in class, they can’t help it. Classes can get overwhelming. Exams and papers begin to build up, which means students will become even more sleep-deprived.
Professors get annoyed, and rightfully so. Falling asleep in class is disrespectful, but students can’t help it. Is it because the professor is boring? Maybe, but that’s usually not the reason students fall asleep. Believe it or not, students fall asleep for one reason: they are tired.
I don’t endorse falling asleep in class. If you’re that tired, you shouldn’t go to class at all. I understand why professors would be upset with a student who has fallen asleep. I would be upset, too.
My real problem lies with professors who get offended by students who yawn, which–like falling asleep–is also often a source of exhaustion.
Last semester I had two professors who absolutely hated it when their students yawned in class. One time, a student yawned and my professor actually stopped the class and asked the student “Am I really that boring?”
While I understand most people connotate yawning with boredom, this is a theory that never has been proven. In fact, there are other theories that carry more weight. According to How Stuff Works, there are four main theories, including the aforementioned boredom theory.
The physiological theory states that our bodies need more oxygen to help get rid of excess carbon dioxide. The evolution theory suggests showing off teeth during a yawn is supposed to intimidate others, a technique commonly used by our ancestors.
The brain-cooling theory, however, says people yawn to keep the brain cool to ensure better cognitive functioning and “to keep us alert.” In that case, wouldn’t yawning in class almost be a good thing? Wouldn’t it show our body’s unconscious effort to stay as alert as possible in class?
The Independent also published an article in May about the brain-cooling theory.
“Both sleep deprivation and exhaustion are known to increase brain temperature, so while it’s true that we yawn to combat lack of sleep, yawns don’t make us ‘more awake’ but instead help keep our brains operating at the right temperature,” the Independent writes.
In addition to trying to keep the brain working the best it can, there is also the idea of contagious yawning. This idea states that people often mimic other peoples’ yawning as a sign of empathy, according to The Independent.
As a result, if one student yawns, the whole class may end up yawning—not because students are bored, but because yawning is contagious.
So rather than assuming everyone is incredibly bored, keep these other theories in mind instead. Either the class is incredibly empathetic, or students are just trying to keep their brains operating at their optimum level. Either way, it’s flattering.