Breathing is essential to life. It provides cells and tissues with the oxygen they need to function properly. Yet we rarely pay any attention to the most natural thing all of us do all the time. On average, we take about 16 breaths per minute, or more than 20,000 a day while we are at rest.
Proper breathing is one of the most powerful ways to enhance physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. For the first time, Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered that the rhythm of our breathing creates electrical activity in the area of the human brain where emotions, memory and smells are processed.
The study, by lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and colleagues, was published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this month.
Breathe in, breathe out
Breathe in, breathe out. A simple act that creates rhythms of neuronal firing in the brain. In the study, the researchers revealed how breathing synchronizes these rhythms in the human brain, producing varying effects on memory and emotional judgments. These effects on behavior and memory strongly depended on whether the person inhaled or exhaled, and disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.
Zelano and colleagues first discovered the differences in brain activity induced by breathing while studying seven epileptic patients who were scheduled for a brain surgery. Before their surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes into their brains to pinpoint the source of their epileptic seizures.
Through these implants, the scientists were able to obtain electrophysiological data straight from their brains. After analyzing the recorded electrical signals, the team concluded that the patients’ brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurred in the specific brain areas – olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus – linked to the processing of emotions, memory and smell.
These increased activity levels prompted the researchers to investigate further the relationship between breathing and cognitive functions such as fear response and memory recall. To this end, they recruited around 60 volunteers to take part in experiments to test memory function and fear response.
The advantage of rapid breathing in dangerous situations
For the first experiment, the test subjects were shown pictures of faces that represented either fear or surprise. During the test, they were asked to quickly indicate which emotion was being expressed while their breathing patterns were measured.
The individuals were able to recognize a fearful face more quickly during inhalation through the nose. Furthermore, they found no improvements in time when the subjects had to identify surprise or when they were breathing through their mouths. Thus, the effect was specific to fearful stimuli and nasal breathing.
As reported by Dr. Zelano, these findings imply that rapid breathing may render an advantage when someone is in a dangerous or stressful situation.
“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”
In a second experiment, the volunteers had to remember a set of different objects shown to them on a computer screen. When they were asked to recall these objects, the researchers noted that recall times were better if the images were encountered during inhalation. Once again, there were no improvements when the volunteers were asked to breathe through their mouths.
It would seem that breathing is not only beneficial for our cells and tissues, but also plays a crucial role in brain activity and behavior. Furthermore, these findings shine new light on the fundamental mechanisms of meditation or yoga breathing.
“When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted.