Many studies, most of which have been conducted over the past twenty-ish years, have shown that controlling our breathing can influence our perception and psychological state.
The majority of these studies are relatively recent because we've only had the technology to measure and chart changes to the brain with the necessary granularity and resolution for about that long. Anecdote can help point us toward interesting realms of study, but especially when dealing with issues related to perception, objective measures are necessary to see what’s really happening.
Thus, quite a few of these studies were inspired by the seeming powers of meditational masters, especially monks who have dedicated their lives to traditional practices related to breath and attention control, and now we’re able to see what’s actually happening in their brains when they perform these rituals and exercises.
A modern permutation and amalgamation of some such traditional concepts is called "mindfulness," and though that term has sprawled to encompass a lot of ideas and practices, it generally means focusing on one's breath with the intention of slowing down one's brain and moderating one's inhales and exhales, often but not always engaging in what's called diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing.
This sort of breathing involves contracting the diaphragm while inhaling, which expands one's belly and frees up one's chest muscles, in contrast to more typical, relaxed or chest breathing which puffs up our chests while keeping our abdominal area taught.
Cultures around the world have traditional wisdom related to breathing which often includes variations of this concept. And such knowledge is shared because it's so relatively easy to pick up and offers a small but potent portfolio of substantial benefits, many of which are detectable even without modern brain scanning technology.
Research has shown that deep breathing improves pulmonary function, the efficiency with which our cardiovascular system deals with the air we breathe, the length and strength of the muscles involved in breathing, and countless other tiny but vital properties of our overall cardiovascular setup.
So athletes looking for advantages, former smokers looking to help repair their damaged breathing apparatuses, and folks with genetic predispositions toward heart problems are all sometimes prescribed routines that include some version of deep breathing because it helps bolster their relevant bodily systems.
Deep breathing has been shown to reduce stress, induce relaxation, and rebalance some of the chemicals associated with depression.
It can also spark curiosity, as it’s been shown to regulate noradrenaline: a chemical messenger that when released into the bloodstream can either enhance our attention and encourage brain development or make it difficult to focus and stoke a sense of stress and panic.
Having the proper levels of such chemicals in our blood, then, is vital if we want to feel calm and attentive and interested, rather than fluttery and untethered and perpetually on edge.
Such breathing also helps us pull in and utilize more oxygen, and has been shown to help us focus, improve our overall levels of biological arousal—in the "being awake and fully functioning" sense, not the sexual sense—can improve our mood by decreasing emotional reactivity and stimulating the production of feel-good, optimism-inducing chemicals, and can generate chemicals and activity in our brains that stimulate the production of new neurological connections.
There's a sub-section of such research focused on how regulating breathing in this way can sync aspects of our bodies with our brain waves so we're better at soaking up information and quickly analyzing that data for meaning: we become more observant, but also cognate more effectively for a time.
This seems to be related to how our brains “tag” information we’re collecting about the world around us and then store that information, neurologically, and how the alignment of these activities determines how efficiently and effectively they’re conducted.
Getting our brains and circulatory systems synced up, then, may help this tagging-and-storing setup operate at a faster clip and operate with a superior synchronicity that ensures the whole, convoluted process functions optimally.
This facet of this research is newer and less well-supported than the more fundamental, cardiovascular and mood-chemical aspect of deep breathing at this point, but it's an area worth watching as it could provide insight into how our breathing and adjacent brain and body systems connect to and perhaps even influence cognitively complex aspects of the human experience, like flow and awe and a holistic sense of fulfillment; things that are seemingly quite complex, but which may be rooted in basic biological regulatory systems like breathing.
Brain Lenses is an Understandary project.
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