Breathing is a simple activity that we do thousands of times a day.
But medical research show the way you breathe can affect your memory and also influence your heart and other organs. Now, there are many different meditation systems that incorporate “systematic deep breakthing.” Yoga is an obvious one, but there are others.
I want to talk about a particular breathing technique today – and I wouldn’t call it another variant of meditation. This is something quite different. It’s easy to do, and studies have validated that it can improve your recall and brain function by way of a simple tweak to the way you usually breathe.
In a study at Northwestern University, researchers found that during a quick observation of an object – such as a person’s face – you can more effectively remember that object later if you see it while inhaling instead of exhaling.
I told you this was simple, didn’t I?
The study also showed that people can differentiate emotions on an observed face faster if they perform the activity while inhaling.1
But these types of benefits only occur if you inhale through your nose. It doesn’t happen if you breathe in through your mouth. Seriously. I’m just repeating what the experiment showed.
“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala (the brain’s emotional center) and hippocampus (memory center) during inhalation compared with exhalation,” says researcher Christina Zelano, Ph.D., who teaches neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex (which processes information about odors), amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”
The brain’s limbic system is a part of the brain that is involved in emotions, memory and motivation.
The breathing research at Northwestern began when the scientists were analyzing electrical activity in the brains of people with epilepsy who were undergoing brain surgery. Electrodes were implanted before the surgery to identify the areas of the brain that were the origins of epileptic seizures.
But the researchers discovered that the recorded electrical signals reflected brain activity that closely coordinated with breathing. And the activity was occurring in the brain locales where memory, emotions and odors were being processed.
When the researchers went on to study other people’s breathing, they found that when you panic and breathe faster, you mostly increase your inhalation time – an action that puts your breathing and thinking into hyper-drive.
“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” says Dr. Zelano. “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.”
Breathing, Body and Mind
When it comes to more familiar breathing exercises – mostly variants of meditation — there’s also plenty of evidence about how breathing a certain way can benefit your brain and body.
For instance, a study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows that a meditation technique called Sudarshan Kriya yoga that uses controlled breathing may help relieve severe depression in people who aren’t helped by antidepressants.2
This type of breathing involves alternating fast, stimulating breaths with rhythmically calm slow breathing. It is designed to put you into a restful meditative state. And the researchers argue that it is “easy to learn and incorporate in diverse settings.”
Plus, a study at the University of California Santa Barbara shows that meditative breathing can help your heart and cardiovascular system work better – improving blood flow to internal organs and lowering blood pressure.3
So the next time you inhale, make sure it’s through your nose – all meditative breathing studies agree that it helps your brain and body. There’s so much research supporting the benefits of meditation, I’ve barely touched the surface in this article. And it can give your neurons that little extra oomph that sharpens memory.