Research Suggests That Breathing Can Affect The Way We Think And Feel

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Dec 28, 2016
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We all know that breathing is essential to stay alive but what we don’t know is that it can also affect the way we think and feel. According to a recent study, the breathing rhythm creates an electrical activity in the brain and this particular effect varies depending on if we breathe through the nose or the mouth or if we are exhaling or inhaling. Now how did the researchers come to this conclusion?

Breathing In and Breathing Out

Researchers at Northwestern University analyzed electroencephalography (EEG) data from seven epilepsy patients. The patients had electrodes implanted in their brains before surgery to discover the source of seizures. During this process, it was observed that the brain activity fluctuated with breathing. This synchronized activity was observed in 3 areas of the brain, the piriform (olfactory) cortex responsible for processing smells; the hippocampus, which controls memory; and the amygdala, which processes emotions.

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“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,” says neurologist Christina Zelano. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

It was observed that stimulation was limited to inhaling and only when the patients were breathing through the nose. To look into the matter further, 70 healthy participants from ages 18 to 30 were recruited for a behavioral experiment. For the experiments the participants were required to make quick decisions and determine what emotion, fear or surprise was evident on faces shown to them. The faces were shown only for split seconds.

The Tests and results

The objective of this was to discover how the amygdala was affected by inhaling or exhaling or breathing through the nose or the mouth. According to the results of the experiment, participants were just a fraction of a second quicker in recognizing fearful faces during inhalation. But this was only when they were inhaling through the nose. There was no observed advantage in recognizing surprised faces.

Another memory test was conducted in which 42 participants were shown pictures of objects on a computer and were asked to recall the images later. The participants seemed to be slightly better at recalling the images when they were inhaling and had around 5 % more accuracy when recalling and inhaling through the nose. The results show only a correlation and not much can be said about this till further researches are done on larger samples.

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However, the team did suggest that our cognitive functions may be boosted by inhaling when we are in conditions of extreme stress. In these conditions we are very often required to act quickly and our breathing quickens. Various studies show that normal breathing rates are 12 to 18 breaths per minute in an adult and this can increase to about 20 per minute is moments of panic. According to Zelano, “If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster. 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.”

So, do you breathe through your nose or your mouth?

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