Breathing and Your Brain

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Breathe deeply.

Whether you’re at the local yoga studio or taking a forced moment so you don’t lose it on your kids, you’ve heard this expression.

We know there’s something to this method of breathing, but what we didn’t know until recently is that controlling our breathing can yield additional access and synchrony between brain areas. This new understanding may even lead to greater control, focus, and calmness.

The fact that humans can control and regulate their brains is unique from most other animals. We can control our emotions, stay awake despite being exhausted, and even suppressing thoughts (incidentally the best way to do this, a counselor friend once told me, is to silently yell, “Stop!” when you catch yourself going down an undesirable path in your head). Most studies in the past focused on the brain stem which controls automatic processes such as heart rate.  But since we can control our breathing rate, other areas of the brain must be involved, say researchers.

Scientists have wondered why humans are capable of volitionally regulating breathing. Dr. Jose Herrero joined forces with neurosurgeon Dr. Ashesh Mehta recently to study brain activity in relation to breathing. While most neuroscience studies involving humans use imaging techniques, Herrero and Mehta’s study involved planting electrodes in the brain. (The subjects were people who had electrodes implanted in their brains as part of a clinical treatment for epilepsy.)

The study, conducted by a team of doctors and researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois and Hofstra University’s Northwell School of Medicine in New York found that when people changed their breathing, either by increasing the pace, counting their breaths (focusing), the brain changed as well. While this isn’t new information for some, particularly high-level athletes, it has never been proven until recently.

Sped-up breathing could stimulate anxiety states which sped up activity in the amygdala, the team discovered. Controlled, deep breathing seemed to tap into the hippocampus and insula – both parts of the brain that are connected to emotion – along with the anterior cingulate cortex, which is key in the modulation of blood pressure and heart rate.

So next time you breath deeply, remember it’s doing you a world of good!