Breathing influences brain activity

Breathing is not a simple supply of oxygen and could also influence the function and behavior of the brain, suggests this study from Northwestern University (Chicago): thus, the rhythm of breathing will synchronize the activity of the human brain, with different effects if one breathes through the nose, or if one breathes through the mouth! Unpublished data published in the Journal of Neuroscience which also help to explain the basic mechanisms of meditation or breathing concentration techniques.

Slow or fast, through the nose or the mouth

Northwestern Medicine scientists show, for the first time, that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain and this activity can lead to improved emotional balance and memory. Effects that depend on inspiration or expiration, and the mode of breathing, through the nose or through the mouth.

Scientists first identified these differences in brain activity in 7 patients with epilepsy who were scheduled to undergo brain surgery. A week before surgery, a surgeon implanted electrodes in patients’ brains to identify the source of their seizures. On this occasion, the doctors recorded the electrophysiological data of the patients’ brains. Recorded electrical signals showed brain activity fluctuating with respiration. Specifically, fluctuating activity in areas of the brain (olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus) where emotions, memory and smells are processed. This finding led scientists to wonder if cognitive functions typically associated with areas of the brain, including fear and memory, might also be affected by breathing.

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Breathing influences the mechanisms of fear

The amygdala is known to be strongly linked to emotional processing, especially fear. The scientists then asked 60 participants, while recording their breathing, to indicate to the vision of images showing expressions of fear or surprise, which emotion each face was expressing.

– When participants looked at these faces during inhalation, they defined them as “more fearful” than during exhalation.

– These effects decrease when subjects perform the same task while breathing through their mouths.

– Thus this effect specific to fear stimuli seems to occur only during nasal breathing.

– Next, using a memory task, the researchers show that memory recall performs better if the images are viewed during inhalation.

Memory and brain activity

Results which show, in summary, that inhalation through the nose increases memory and response to fearful stimuli, but that these effects disappear during mouth breathing. Finally, there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared to exhalation.

The ‘why’ of rapid breathing in panic: This data suggests that rapid breathing may confer an advantage in the context of danger. If you are in a state of panic, your breathing rate becomes faster. Thus, this faster fear-breathing reflex could positively impact brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous environmental stimuli. We also understand why meditation, which involves concentrating on your breathing and in particular mouth inspiration, helps to reduce stress.


Journal of Neuroscience Dec 2016 (In Press) via Eurekalert (AAAS) Rhythm of breathing affects memory and fear

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Read also:

Meditating Changes the Brain and Changes Your Life


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