Focused Breathing – Take a Breath
We’re often told to take a breath when overcome with an intense emotional reaction. The use of focused breathing to calm down seems to be a natural response. It was previously thought that the technique was useful because of its regulating effect on the circulatory system. However, a recent scientific study (Zelano et. al, 2016) has found that breathing, at least nasally, is directly linked to our cognitive processes.
The Nose-Brain Superhighway
Being on the face, our noses are one of the few body parts that are directly connected to the brain. Neurons from the olfactory bulb at the base of the frontal cortex extend into tissues at the top of the nasal cavity. The olfactory bulb is divided into two distinct structures, one for each nostril, but is referred to as a single entity. It is also connected to several other brain areas, like the amygdalae and, less directly, the hippocampus. These connections contribute to the strong bonds between smell, memory, and emotion in human experience.
In nonhuman mammals, like rodents, scientists had long observed an activation in the olfactory bulb that was related to nasal respiration. The 2016 study by Zelano and colleagues was the first to confirm the existence of an olfactory-respiratory link in humans. They directly measured electrical activity in key brain areas by inserting electrodes into the brains of consenting epileptic patients who were already undergoing surgical procedures. Their findings revealed that the expected link between nasal breathing and the olfactory bulb can be observed in electrical activities at a lower wavelength than those seen in other mammals.
Natural Breathing is Key
Once it was confirmed, the researchers were able to further investigate the nasal respiration-olfactory bulb relationship by using more electrodes to measure corresponding activities in connected parts of the brain. Synchronized signals between the olfactory bulb and hippocampus showed that nasal breathing is related to memory formation, while synchronizations between the bulb and amygdalae demonstrated a link with emotional modulations. The associations were all highly dependent on the stage of breathing (inhalation and exhale), and were functioning optimally when breathing was natural.
Focused breathing techniques, from guided meditation to simply being told to take a breath, help us to normalize our breathing patterns. This may aid in returning our brains to a calm state of operation in circumstances where it may otherwise be abnormally excited or inhibited. However, as far as we can currently tell, this action may only be available when breathing is accomplished primarily through the nose.
Zelano, C., Jiang, H., Zhou, G., Arora, N., Schuele, S., Rosenow, J., & Gottfried, J. A. (2016). Nasal respiration entrains human limbic oscillations and modulates cognitive function. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(49), 12448-12467.