Deep breathing or rhythmic breathing such as is done in Yoga has long been known to be a relaxation technique that can help reduce stress.
A new study suggests that such deep breathing is essential for cognition and maintaining good brain health as we age.
Researchers led by Professor Micah Allen from the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University have come to a step closer to understanding how the very act of breathing shapes our brain.
“What we found is that, across many different types of tasks and animals, brain rhythms are closely tied to the rhythm of our breath. We are more sensitive to the outside world when we are breathing in, whereas the brain tunes out more when we breathe out. This also aligns with how some extreme sports use breathing, for example, professional marksmen are trained to pull the trigger at the end of exhalation,” explains Professor Micah Allen.
The study suggests that breathing is more than just something we do to stay alive, explains Micah Allen.
“It suggests that the brain and breathing are closely intertwined in a way that goes far beyond survival, to actually impact our emotions, our attention, and how we process the outside world. Our model suggests there is a common mechanism in the brain which links the rhythm of breathing to these events.”
Stabilizing our mind through breathing is a well-known and used tactic in many traditions such as yoga and meditation.
The new study sheds light on how the brain makes it possible.
It suggests that there are three pathways in the brain that control this interaction between breathing and brain activity.
It also suggests that our pattern of breathing makes the brain more “excitable,” meaning neurons are more likely to fire during certain times of breathing.
Understanding how breathing shapes our brain, and by extension, our mood, thoughts, and behaviors is an important goal in order to better prevent and treat mental illnesses and conditions like age-related cognitive decline and dementia.
The study also suggests a reason why those with “long-haul” COVID experience memory and cognitive difficulties. It could very well be due to lung damage from the disease interfering with the normal “brain-breathing” balance.