Buddhists and proponents of yoga have long touted the benefits of using simple breathing practices to focus your attention and deepen your calmness. Finally, some 2,500 years later, scientists have just about caught up.
A new study by Trinity College Dublin has shown how breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices appear to sharpen people's attention and enhance reaction times. Not only that, for the very first time, they have even found a direct neurophysiological link between focused breathing and brain cognition, as reported in the journal Psychophysiology.
Breathing is often used as a tool in meditation and mindfulness practices because it’s an “object of focus” that's always with us and easy for people to control. The new research has also shown how breathing can directly affect levels of noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that floods the brain when we are scared, challenged, focused, curious, or emotionally aroused.
Researchers discovered this link by measuring people’s breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in an area of the brainstem called the locus coeruleus where noradrenaline is made. They found that people engaging in breathing practices resulted in a greater attention and “steadiness of mind,” which was also reflected in the changes of activity in the locus coeruleus.
“This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized,” lead author Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, explained in a statement.
“Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can't focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
You can picture this idea of a noradrenaline “sweet spot” if you imagine being nervous for an exam at school. In this kind of scenario, a healthy dose of noradrenaline will prepare you to be alert and ready to focus. However, too much noradrenaline and you could become shaky, sweaty, and panicked. It appears that some mindfulness breathing technique could help people to regulate the levels of noradrenaline and avoid these extremes.
The study isn’t just rather cool proof of a 2,500-year-old concept, the researchers argue that their findings could eventually be used to develop smarter drug-free treatments for ADHD and traumatic brain injury or even in forms of dementia among older people.
So, breathe in... and out. Ahhhh, that's better.