The Myth Behind Tears and Yawning


Some years ago, while I was in high school, a friend of mine got worked up because she believed I was crying one morning and didn’t want to tell her why.

I just woke up from sleep, and I could feel the tears drop down my face, but I didn’t understand why either. I only remembered waking up and yawning a few seconds before I felt the first drop.

I believe I am not the only one who has had to explain to people that they are not sad due to tears after yawning. Well, let’s find out why it happens.

What is yawning and why do we yawn?

Let’s start our learning journey with all there is to know about yawning.

Yawning is a reflex action during which our mouths open wide, and our lungs take in lots of air, after which the air is slowly exhaled. While this is happening, our eyes might be closed tight, and our eardrums stretched.

Since yawning usually occurs before or after sleep, most persons consider it as a sign of being tired or bored.

It might interest you to know that humans are not the only species that yawn. All vertebrates do; fishes, birds, wolves, and horses, however only three of these species can yawn contagiously.

Why is Yawning Contagious?

You must have caught yourself yawning after watching someone yawn. Some scientists have tried to bring up theories such as

  • Yawning occurs when the body needs oxygen.
  • Some scientists see yawning as a way for animals to keep themselves alert.
  • Another theory suggests that yawning is the body’s way of controlling the temperature of the brain.

None of these theories has been concluded so far; as such, the full reason is unknown.

The contagiousness of yawning has been researched and is said to do with empathy.

A new study is ongoing to prove that psychopaths may be immune to contagious yawns as a lack of empathy is one of the defining factors of psychopathy.

Children with the autism spectrum are also less likely to catch a yawn. This is however not a diagnostics for psychopathy as other traits are being researched on, like the fact that psychopath is less likely to be startled.

Yawning on its own is not something to be worried about as it could be caused by boredom, cool temperatures, drowsiness, or watching other people yawn.

Also, it could be parasomnias, poor sleep hygiene, tiredness, and vasovagal reaction. However, too much of it might be a sign of different disorders that require medical attention like a sleep disorder or a brain condition.

It could also be a side effect of medications taken for depression or anxiety. We need to consult a doctor if we notice that we have been yawning excessively, especially if we are not sleepy or bored.

How are Tears Formed?

Humans shed about 30 gallons of tears in a year. Well, not all of that has to do with being sad as there are different types of tears.

Though all mammals shed tears, tears caused by emotional responses can only be found in humans.

Some of the contents of tears are water, protein, mucus, lipids, and electrolytes. However, some scientists say emotional tears contain more proteins and hormones than others.

What Are The Different Types of Tears Our Bodies Make?

The first, which we all think of whenever we hear or see the word tears, is the :

Emotional Tears

Emotional tears are formed as the body’s response to strong emotions like when we are pleased or when we laugh really hard; this is not only associated with positive emotions as we shed tears when we are angry, mourning, feeling physical pain, and under emotional stress.

Crying is said to be therapeutic as they contain stress hormones and are a way of getting rid of stress.

Basal Tears

These are functional tears found in our eyes all the time as they protect and lubricate the cornea. They are the eyes shield against dirt and debris.

The basal tears aid good vision and comfort. The production of basal tears slows down with age and could result in a condition known as dry eyes.

Reflex Tears

When our eyes come in contact with foreign bodies or irritants like smoke, onion fumes, pepper spray, tear gas, it reacts by producing the reflex tears to wash away the irritants.

Reflex tears are said to contain antibodies that help fight bacteria. They are also linked with yawning, vomiting, coughing, and bright light.

Tears have three layers, with each later having its distinctive function. The three layers make up the tears film that spreads around our eyes when we blink.

  1. The mucus layer is the inner part of the tears film that makes the tears stick to the eyes.
  2. The watery layers come after this and are saddled with the responsibility of washing away particles that do not belong to the eyes.
  3. The last layer is an oily layer that prevents tears from drying up too quickly and keeps the tears surface smooth.

Why do we tear up when we yawn?

The lacrimal gland is responsible for the production of tears, and it sits just below our eyebrows.

As earlier stated, our eyes close tightly, and our eardrums stretched when we yawn. The facial muscle is contracted at this point, putting pressure on the lacrimal gland.

Since the tears ducts are closed due to your closed eyes, the tears have nowhere to stay, thereby flowing out of the eyes. This is a reflex type of tears.

So, the next time you catch a yawn or shed a tear while yawning, understand that it is perfectly normal. 

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