Posts By / Simon Thompson

Capturing a yawn: initial observations – Dr Simon Thompson

Yawning presents scientists and clinicians with an intriguing phenomenon. There is continued uncertainty over its neuroanatomical origin, the neuro-chemicals involved, mechanisms involved, and its reasons of functionality. Apart from being able to visually (and aurally) observe a person yawning, it has been difficult to quantify until now.

Researchers suggest that yawning may play an important role in the protection of our immune system, by regulating hormones, and particular reflexes, when we are exposed to psychological or physical stress or fatigue (Thompson, & Zisa, 2012).

The stress hormone, cortisol may be a part of this complex response because of its involvement in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (Wikipedia, 2013). Cortisol, known systematically as 11-beta-11, 17, 21-trihydroxypregn-4-ene-3, 20-dione (IUPAC, 2013), is measured reliably in saliva as well as in the blood. The exact relationship between cortisol and yawning is thought to be either as a precursor to the yawn or as a result of yawning since, curiously, cortisol is found to be elevated after yawning (Thompson, & Bishop, 2012).

The yawn is produced by stretching the muscles along the jaw-line; however, the extent of stretch and volume of yawn varies between people. Measuring the level of electrical muscle activity using electromyography (EMG) at the muscle site during the yawn phase is in the region of millionths of a volt and may be sustained for several seconds.

Male and female volunteers aged between 18-53 years were exposed to conditions that provoked a yawning response in a randomised controlled trial here at Bournemouth University. For the first time, the yawn was quantified and a profile of EMG data (sine wave) was obtained.

Initial observations find that of a sample of yawners and non-yawners, induced by presentation of yawning stimuli, the people who yawned had elevated nerve activity from 50 (at rest) to 175 (after stimuli presentation and yawning) (see Photo) compared with those who did not yawn who exhibited 10 (at rest) to 80 (after stimuli presentation). Yawners generally had higher level of electrical muscular jaw activity both before and after yawning.

Further research is continuing into the “yawning envelope” (EMG wave) with the hope that, together with cortisol measurement, this new information may form part of a potential diagnostic tool to identify untoward early neurological sequelae that are indicative of neurological disease.

IUPAC – International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry., 2013., Accessed 18.08.2013

Thompson, S.B.N., & Bishop, P., 2012. Born to yawn? Understanding yawning as a warning of the rise in cortisol levels: randomized trial. Interactive Journal of Medical Research 1(5);e4:1-9. Doi: 10.2196/ijmr.2241

Thompson SBN, Zisa L., 2012. Ill-health, stress, cortisol levels and yawning. In SBN Thompson (Ed.), Psychology of trauma: clinical reviews, case histories, research. Portsmouth: Blackwell-Harvard-Academic: 125-132

Wikipedia, 2013b. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis., Accessed: 18.08.2013




Festival of Learning – Testament to a Successful Morning (Dr Simon Thompson, DEC Psychology Research Centre)

‘Testamentary Capacity in Dementia’ (03 June 2013 10:00h – 13:00h) – Presentation followed by in-depth plenary session about the complexities of leaving an estate to beneficiaries following a diagnosis of dementia.

‘Dementia’ is an umbrella term used to describe many types of deteriorating diseases – the most common ones are Alzhiemer’s disease, Vascular dementia, and Lewy body dementia.

Many married couples own property as ‘joint tenants’. Upon death, ownership automatically passes to the survivor. If property is owned as ‘tenants in common’, one half of the estate belonging to the deceased is dealt with by their Will. Problems arise when there is no Will, when others make a claim, or when another Will is executed.

‘Testamentary capacity’ is a person’s legal and mental ability to make a
valid Will. There are three premises: Presumption of capacity; Requirements; Proof of testamentary capacity.

It is proposed that the law should allow testators alternative means of satisfying the testamentary capacity standard such as an option to validate a testator’s capacity during their lifetime through forensic assessment measuring cognitive elements of testamentary capacity.

It does not remove the difficulty of knowing the status of person at a specific time line. However, it goes some way to describing a person during their lifetime in terms of mental ability and capacity.

Thompson, SBN (2006). Dementia and memory: a handbook for students and professionals. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Thompson, SBN (2012). Dementia. In SBN Thompson (Ed), Psychology of trauma: clinical reviews, case histories, research (pp169-202). Portsmouth: Blackwell-Harvard-Academic.

Are we born to yawn?

Yawning consistently poses a conundrum to neurologists and neuroscientists. Increasingly, evidence is found to link neurological disorders through the commonality of yawning episodes and contagious yawning. Despite discrete incidences (such as parakinesia brachialis oscitans) in brain stem ischaemic stroke patients, there is considerable debate over the reasons for yawning, with the mechanism of yawning still not fully understood. Cortisol is implicated in the stress response and fatigue; repetitive yawning may be the link between neurological disorders and with a strong correlation between yawning and a rise in cortisol levels. Evidence has now been found in support of the Thompson Cortisol Hypothesis that proposes cortisol levels are elevated during yawning [1]. Additional data is in press, and further research is planned with longitudinal consideration to neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and stroke. Funding for such initiatives is currently being sought.

[1] Thompson, S.B.N., & Bishop, P., 2012. Born to yawn? Understanding yawning as a warning of the rise in cortisol levels: randomized trial. Interactive Journal of Medical Research, 1(5), e4:1-9. Doi: