By Lauren Lapoint

How Breathing Affects our Brain & Emotions

The Smithsonian Magazine (Oct 2022 edition) carried an interesting article written by Greg Miller on breathing and your brain.  Did you know that we all breathe approximately 20,000 times per day?  And think about it - we eat, sleep, talk, exercise and carryout daily activities without ever once thinking about how our breathing pattern fits into all these functions. The act of breathing is both extremely flexible and very reliable. And we know through yoga and meditation practices, that controlled breathing can deeply affect one’s state of mind.

Breathing plays an important role in emotions and cognition. As stated in the article, “each breath is a symphony of lung, muscle, and brain."

In contrast to the heart muscle which has a built-in pacemaker, the muscles that control breathing take their orders from the brain and the brainstem. There, thousands of neurons direct breathing patterns and rhythm. Sighing is a good illustration of the connection among the brain, the lungs, and diaphragm. 

A long deep breath can express many emotions: sadness, relief, resignation, yearning, or exhaustion. Humans sigh multiple times each waking hour and, in doing so, take in nearly twice the oxygen they inhale with a normal breath.  Scientists believe sighing serves to open or refresh tiny chambers in the lungs called alveoli which provide a surface where oxygen can diffuse into the blood and carbon dioxide can be expelled. 

Recent studies have found that breathing can influence human performance in a variety of cognitive tests. One study found that people tend to inhale just before a cognitive task – and that doing so improved performance. However, several of these studies show this improved performance trend only to be evident where the individual’s inhalation was through the nasal passages, not the mouth.

Research has shown a close relationship between breathing patterns and well-documented rhythmic oscillations of electrical activity in the brain – as measured through electrodes placed on an individual’s scalp. These oscillations or waves are the product of thousands of neurons from various parts of the brain that relate to cognition. They could be, for example, how the brain instantaneously integrates sensory information collected through sight, touch, visual input, sound, etc. into a seamless perception of what an individual recognizes or experiences at a given moment.

Growing evidence suggests that breathing influences that pace at which these waves of neurons travel. A study conducted using electrodes on epilepsy patients to monitor seizures, found that natural breathing rhythms synchronized neuron oscillations within several brain regions that are closely aligned with emotional processing. This synchronizing effect, however, diminished when subjects were asked to breathe through their mouth, suggesting that sensory feedback from nasal airflow plays a key role in processing emotions.

In other cognitive tests, subjects were shown photos of individuals and asked to describe the emotion that seemed to be expressed by the person in the photo.  Subjects more quickly identified the emotion depicted when they were inhaling as opposed to exhaling. In a similar test designed to test the subject’s recollection of photographed individuals, the subject’s recollection improved when they were shown the photo while inhaling.  In both of these tests, cognitive identification also improved when the subjects inhaled through their nasal passages as opposed to their mouth.

The above suggests that there may be important relationships between breathing and brain functions, but more study is required to pinpoint the relationship.  For centuries, yoga practitioners and those who meditate have focused on harmonizing the symphony among, lung, muscle, mind.

One quest has been to identify how this symphony can soothe those with anxiety or mood disorders. Another focus has been on how meditation could possibly improve memory and alter brain connectivity in older people with cognitive impairment.  The issue of cause and effect, however, is complicated by the many elements that comprise a rich meditative or yoga practice: stretching, movement, visualization, breathing rhythms, etc.  The Miller article does not draw any conclusions, but it is a good bet that, as Lady Gaga might say, “you were born this way” – to breathe through your nose. 

If you would like to increase your level of nasal breathing while practicing yoga, meditating, or while sleeping, oi tape has mouth tape that can help.

1 comment

  • Very interesting. No doubt that the mind beating connection is more synchronized than we acknowledge or practice!

    Mark nordstrom on

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