How Does Breathing Impact The Brain? Learn From a Neuroscientist
This video is part of the Mindfulness Incubator video series. (9/16)
Breathing is something we all do every day and perhaps take for granted. But consciously paying attention to our breath and practicing deeper, controlled breathing, something that is taught in meditation, can help us in a variety of ways, from helping regulate blood pressure to boosting our mood.
Hi and welcome to Headspace. I’m Dr. Rando Pierce, a neuroscience researcher who studies the many different functions of the brain. Today, we’ll be talking about the science of breathing and how it impacts your brain and body. Let’s get started.
So what exactly is breathing? It starts with the air around us, which contains nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, with oxygen being the most important one because we need it to survive. To breathe, air gets sucked through your nose or mouth and then travels through the trachea and into your lungs, which expand. The air then reaches air sacs where oxygen is passed into the bloodstream.
While breathing is the physical process of taking in and expelling air, respiration is the chemical process in which we use oxygen to generate actual energy. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is released and goes from the bloodstream and into the air sacs, which is then expelled from the body when you exhale.
The average person repeats this entire process between 17,000 to 24,000 times a day. We usually don’t even think about breathing because it happens automatically thanks to our body’s autonomic nervous system.
When you’re faced with a difficult challenge, whether psychological or physical, your sympathetic nervous system, one branch of the autonomic nervous system, gets triggered. This sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for action, that fight or flight response, which makes your heart beat faster and opens up your airways so you can breathe more easily and take in more oxygen. However, how we breathe can actually trigger this fight or flight response. For example, when you’re feeling nervous or anxious, you tend to tense up, and your breathing can start to become more rapid and shallow, known as hyperventilation. You may even hold your breath.
If we’re breathing under stress over long periods of time, cells in the brain and the body don’t get the oxygen they need and can’t work as efficiently. The brain is an organ with one of the highest oxygen and glucose requirements. Therefore, this sort of hypoxic state can cause problems with brain cognition, making it harder to focus. Think of freezing up before a presentation. This is why, in stressful situations, people are often told to slow down and take a deep breath.
Even though breathing happens automatically without us even having to think about it, we can override that to control our breathing voluntarily. This means that we can control the quality of our breathing. Changing the air pressure inside the lungs is one of the main ways we can alter breathing and increase oxygen levels. For example, slowing down the breath and taking deep breaths into your diaphragm increases the pressure of oxygen in the air sacs, making it easier for oxygen molecules to move into the blood through the capillaries.
Increasing oxygen levels activates the rest and digest branch of the autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system creates a sense of mental calmness and counteracts the effects of stress and the stress hormone cortisol.
There have been numerous studies on how breathing patterns reflect emotions because emotions and the way that the body responds are very intertwined. If you’re feeling angry or stressed, your breathing will be more shallow and rapid. On the other hand, if you’re feeling content and happy, your breathing will be deeper and slower. However, research has shown that controlled breathing can also impact our emotional state.
While emotions are complex and often overlapping, new research has shown some promising evidence for how changing your breathing could actually actively influence brain activity associated with perception, cognition, behavior, and emotion.
It’s important to note that there are many different techniques of deep breathing, so find one that works for you. Deep breathing may also not be suitable for those who experience shortness of breath, anxiety, or panic attacks or have heart conditions. Please practice mindfully and consult with a healthcare professional if you have any questions.
I’m Dr. Yolanda Pierce, and thank you very much for watching.
Breathing, it’s the rhythm of life that we often overlook. We do it every day, without much thought, but have you ever considered the profound impact it has on our well-being? Today, we delve into the world of breath, exploring its fascinating science and how it touches every aspect of our existence.
I’m not a scientist, but I’m here to guide you on this journey. So, what exactly is this simple act of breathing? It’s a dance with the air around us, an exchange of life. In every breath, we encounter nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and oxygen, with oxygen being the star of the show, essential for our very survival.
The process is a harmonious sequence: air flows through our nose or mouth, traverses the trachea, and embraces our lungs. Within the sacred chambers of our lungs, oxygen is shared with our bloodstream, providing the fuel for our vitality. It’s a miraculous partnership, where we give and take in every breath.
But here’s the thing: while breathing is a mechanical process, respiration is a chemical one, where oxygen transforms into energy, and carbon dioxide departs as we exhale. This symphony of life plays out 17,000 to 24,000 times a day, orchestrated by our autonomic nervous system, a conductor of breath without us even noticing.
Yet, our breath responds to our emotions, our challenges. When we confront difficulties, be they psychological or physical, our sympathetic nervous system takes the stage. It’s the orchestra that prepares us for action, that fight-or-flight response. Our hearts beat faster, airways open, and we breathe in the oxygen we need for the battle.
But here’s the twist: how we breathe can either soothe or exacerbate this response. When anxiety knocks on our door, we tend to tense up, inhaling shallow and rapid breaths—a condition known as hyperventilation. Sometimes, we even hold our breath, as if it could shield us from the world’s troubles.
This is where the plot thickens. Prolonged stress, with its shallow breaths, denies our cells the oxygen they crave, leaving them unable to perform their tasks efficiently. Our brains, voracious oxygen consumers, face cognitive challenges, making focus a distant dream. Picture the moments before a presentation, the freezing up—that’s the impact of this oxygen drought.
The magic lies in knowing that we can reclaim this narrative. Despite breathing’s autonomic nature, we can influence its quality, just as a skilled musician can control their instrument. By altering lung air pressure, we enhance oxygen flow. For example, inhaling deeply into our diaphragm elevates oxygen pressure in air sacs, facilitating oxygen’s journey into the bloodstream via capillaries.
This mastery doesn’t just boost oxygen levels; it also ushers in the parasympathetic nervous system—the conductor of rest and calm. It counters stress and cortisol’s effects, inviting mental serenity to replace chaos.
The connection between breath and emotions is profound. Emotions and bodily responses are intertwined, and your breath mirrors your feelings. Anger and stress tighten your breath, making it shallow and rapid. On the other hand, contentment and happiness coax deeper, slower breaths from within.
But here’s where it gets intriguing. Research hints that changing how you breathe can wield influence over your emotional state. The story isn’t as simple as a one-way street; it’s a dynamic interplay.
Before you embark on this journey, be mindful of your path. The world of deep breathing is diverse, with many techniques to explore. However, it’s not suitable for everyone. Those with shortness of breath, anxiety, panic attacks, or heart conditions should tread carefully. Consult with a healthcare professional if you’re unsure.
As we wrap up this exploration, remember that your breath, your constant companion, holds the potential to transform your life. It’s a reminder of the power within, the ability to shape your responses to life’s challenges. So, take a moment to appreciate the breath, and let it guide you towards a more tranquil, empowered existence.