Neurophysiological Foundation for Mindful Breathing
Node Smith, ND
Many claim that meditative practices concentrating on bringing awareness to the breath, such as pranayama, can increase focus, and attention. A study from Trinity College Dublin elucidates this link between the breath and attention.1
Breath-training through meditation produces many cognitive advantages
Much like training other physical abilities, breath-training through mindful meditation practices has multiple cognitive benefits, such as decreasing mind wandering, increasing focus, enhanced levels of arousal, increased positivity, and decrease in emotional reactivity, to name a few. Despite the general acceptance that mindful breathing is beneficial, there has been no proposed specific neurophysiological link connecting respiration and cognition.
Research uncovered that breathing directly affects neurochemistry
This research has uncovered that breathing directly affects neurochemistry, specifically noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is a hormone – which also acts like a neurotransmitter – that is released when we are emotionally aroused, curious, challenged, focused or during exercise. Noradrenaline is produced in a small region of the brain called the locus coeruleus. At the right levels, noradrenaline promotes neural connections. So, the way we breathe directly impacts the chemistry of our brains to promote attention and actually improve overall brain health.
Those who focused well displayed synchronized breathing patterns and performed better on tasks requiring greater levels of attention
The study noted that individuals who were able to focus well while performing a task that required a high amount of attention had a greater level of synchronization of their breathing pattern attention than individuals who had poor focus. Brain activity in the locus coeruleus, as well as reaction time, were looked at in conjunction with breathing pattern.
Study suggests that we may be able to regulate level of noradrenaline produced by the brain
During inhalation the activity in the locus coeruleus is increased and it is decreased slightly during exhalation. This suggests that simply by breathing we may be able to regulate the level of noradrenaline produced by the brain, thus impacting our attention and focus with our breathing. This research also helps form a better understanding of the mechanisms of meditation
“Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation”
Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity commented on this research: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath, and regulating it in precise ways–a practice known as pranayama–changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind.”
Long term meditators may have more ‘youthful’ brains
“[These] findings could have particular implications for research into brain aging. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. Our research offers one possible reason for this – using our breath to control one of the brain’s natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right ‘dose’ helps the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.”
- Melnychuk MC, Dockree PM, O’connell RG, Murphy PR, Balsters JH, Robertson IH. Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama. Psychophysiology. 2018;:e13091.
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Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.