January 29, 2019
Though a breath typically happens within a couple of seconds, research has found that brain activity changes depending on the type of breathing you do. Neuroscientists at Northwestern Medicine revealed that breathing rhythm can be used to improve human brain activity to enhance judgment and memory recall.
In prior research, epilepsy patients were focused on due to having electrodes implanted into their brains, in preparation for surgical treatment. This provided unique insights into subjects’ mental states via live electro-physiological data.
The data reflected some acute changes in brain functions during each split second of breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory, and smells are processed.
This led the scientists to test how thought patterns may change during breathing when subjects were given an emotion recognition task. The task involved looking at brief images of people’s faces that were either fearful or surprised, and reacting as quickly as possible to identify which was which.
The fearful images were intended to activate the amygdala, an area of the brain which processes emotions, particularly if they are fear related – such as in a fight or flight situation.
When fearful faces were shown during inhalation, they were recognized much more quickly, compared to when breathing out or seeing faces expressing surprise. More specifically, these improved reactions were more pronounced when breathing through the nose, rather than the mouth. In short, inward nasal breaths boosted reactions to fearful stimuli.
Another version of the experiment also showed enhanced memory function under the same conditions, with nasal inhalation again having the strongest effects. Together these point to rapid fluctuations in the functioning of the amygdala (emotional) and hippocampus (memory) regions of the brain. Lead author of the study, Christina Zelano, summarized the results.
“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation. When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”
When breathing rhythm speeds up, inhalation requires more effort and so it lasts longer in proportion to exhaling. This means in a panicked or excited state, memory and emotional processing receives more of a boost, which could provide an evolved advantage in dangerous situations.
In sports when there is a lot of pressure and cognitive skills are often pushed, it may also help athletes perform in the zone, even shortening reaction times. Some sports psychologists and coaches stress the importance of breathing to optimize performance, which this research may support.
The effects could also help explain the focus on taking long breaths during meditation and yoga, which is a fundamental principle at the core of their practice. As Zelano explained, “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network”.
The simple takeaway is that conscious control of taking longer inward breaths through the nose, then breathing out quickly, may optimize mental performance.
If you found this topic intriguing, then check out our blog on yoga.
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