Breathe in, breathe out – the power of breathing

This post is also available in Dutch.

Breathing is not only important for taking in oxygen. It also influences how you think. Find out how you might improve your memory and emotional awareness by breathing in and out.

“What power is residing in your breathing?” Image source: Pexels

Your life depends on the simple act of breathing. If you were to stop breathing at this very moment your body would not get any oxygen, and the rest would follow… Four to six minutes without oxygen results in brain damage, and eight minutes without oxygen will result in you being clinically brain dead. Stay calm, keep breathing! Thankfully, breathing is something our body can do automatically.

The importance of breathing is something that has also been emphasized through the popularity of meditation. The focus on breathing is one of the most important techniques in meditation, and has been shown to have a strong effect on reducing stress, anxiety and depression.

Interestingly, according to recent research from scientists from the United States, you do more than just take in oxygen and rest when you breathe.

Groundbreaking research on breathing and the brain
Research by the scientists was first done with epilepsy patients who have what are called ‘deep electrodes’, which are tiny electric wires, surgically implanted deep inside the brain. These patients have electrodes inserted in their brain so that doctors can determine where the source of their epilepsy is located in the brain.

You can also use these electrodes to measure healthy brain function, just like the scientists did for this study. It turns out that the electric current in the brains of these patients flows with the rate at which they breathe. This wavelike activity is located in brain regions important for memory and the processing of emotion.

Breathing influences how we process emotion
After this interesting finding, the researchers questioned whether breathing not only influences the brain, but whether it also influences how we process information. In order to study this question, more than a hundred participants visited their lab. Once they arrived, participants were asked to respond as quickly as possible to photos that showed people’s faces showing emotions, and were also asked to do a quick memory test. All the while, their breathing rate was being measured.

Whenever participants would inhale, they could identify fearful facial expressions more quickly than when they exhaled. No difference between inhaling and exhaling was found when faces showed a look of surprise. Interestingly, when seeing faces with a fearful expression, the advantages of breathing in only occurred when participants inhaled through their nose. No differences were found when breathing in and out through the mouth.

Breathing influences your memory
Memory is also influenced by breathing. Participants could remember photos of objects better if they had inhaled while seeing these photos. This was both the case when participants had inhaled through their nose and when they had inhaled through their mouth. However, the effect was stronger when participants inhaled through their nose.

Why does the nose work better than the mouth?
The researchers discovered that breathing through your nose, compared to breathing through your mouth, allows for activity in the brain to better synchronize. One could think that breathing through your nose acts as a kind of ‘clock’ that regulates the timing of activity in the brain. But what this specifically might mean for brain function is still unclear.

What the researchers have to say
In the video below, you’ll find the results from the study explained in about a minutes’ time (in English):

Employ these findings in your advantage
One of the researchers involved in this study explains at the end of the video that we can potentially use these findings to our benefit. For instance, you could be made more quickly aware of a bad situation happening in your immediate surroundings if you’re breathing through your nose. You might possibly also study better for an exam while breathing through your nose and not through your mouth. Who knows what future research might reveal next about the way that we breathe!

This blog was written by Angelique.
Edited by Jeroen.
Translated by Marpessa.

Addition to article January 2018
Based on computations it appeared relatively likely that the above findings are a coincidence. This means that these findings need to be interpreted with caution at the moment. The effects are interesting, but more research is needed to confirm them. Meanwhile: relax and keep breathing 🙂

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