Breathing doesn’t just keep us alive, it also boosts our brain power, according to a new study.
The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that the rhythm of breath creates electrical activity in the brain where emotions, memory and smell are processed. The study said breathing’s effects on behavior specifically depend on whether someone inhales or exhales and whether they breathe through the nose or the mouth. Christina Zelano, lead author and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said the findings highlight how the brain acts as we breathe.
“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” Zelano said in a press release. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”
Scientists studied about 60 participants and asked them to make rapid decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. They were presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise, and the subjects had to indicate which emotion the face was expressing as quickly as possible.
Individuals labeled a face as “fearful” faster if they saw the face while inhaling through the nose, compared to when they were exhaling. Zelano said fast breathing while in fear could help explain how people make decisions in a panic.
“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”
The same couldn’t be said for faces of surprise. Participants weren’t able to recognize a face as fearful while performing the same task as they breathed through their mouths.
While originally studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery, the scientists implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains to identify the origin of the seizures. The electrophysiological data that was recorded showed that brain activity fluctuated with breathing in the areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.
The researchers also noted that individuals were more likely to remember an object if they saw it on an inhaled breath rather than an exhaled one. In addition, the effect disappeared if breathing was through the mouth.
Insight into how meditation works was another take away from the study. Zelano said the breathing during meditation could be the reason people try to align the body and mind.
“When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano said.
Other Northwestern authors in the study include Heidi Jiang, Guangyu Zhou, Nikita Arora, Stephan Schuele and Joshua Rosenow. The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health.