A recent study by the Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has found evidence to show that there is a direct link between nasal breathing and our cognitive functions.
We have all heard this simple saying during times of trouble: “Take a deep breath in.” Science being science, however, indicates that we may now have to update this old adage to read “Take a deep breath in as it will help you be more emotionally aware but only if you inhale specifically through your nostrils and not your mouth.”
While this may seem a lengthy tip to recall in the midst of uh-oh moments, the power of active breathing—voluntarily inhaling and exhaling to control our breathing rhythm—has been known and used throughout history. Even today, in tactical situations by soldiers, or in extreme cold conditions by the Ice Man, we know that slow, deep breathing can calm the nervous system by reducing our heart rate and activating the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for anxiety and stress). In this way, our bodies become calm, and our minds also quieten.
Recently, however, a new study has found evidence to show that there is actually a direct link between nasal breathing and our cognitive functions.
How nasal breathing influences the brain
Northwestern Medicine scientists were interested in understanding how breathing affects the brain regions responsible for memory and emotional processing. Through a series of experiments, they discovered that nasal breathing plays a pivotal role in coordinating electrical brain signals in the olfactory “smell” cortex—the brain regions that directly receive input from our nose—which then coordinates the amygdala (which processes emotions) and the hippocampus (responsible for both memory and emotions).
We know that the “smell” system is closely linked to the limbic brain regions that affect emotions, memory and behavior, which is why sometimes a particular smell or fragrance can evoke very vivid memories. This study shows, additionally, that the act of breathing itself, even in the absence of smells, can influence our emotions and memory.
Initially, the scientists examined the electrical brain signals of seven epileptic patients with electrodes, and found that the ongoing rhythms of natural, spontaneous breathing are in sync with slow electrical rhythms in our brain’s “smell” region. They also found that during nasal inhalation, the fast electrical rhythms in the amygdala and hippocampus became stronger. One way to understand this is to think of the system as an orchestra: our nasal breathing is the grand conductor, setting the tempo for the slow playing of the smell regions of the brain while weaving in the faster rhythms of the emotions and memory regions.
The in-breath encodes memories and regulates emotions
To further understand these synchronous effects that nasal breathing has on our brain regions, the scientists then conducted separate experiments on 60 healthy subjects to test the effects of nasal breathing on memory and emotional behavior. Subjects were presented with fearful or surprised faces, and had to make rapid decisions on the emotional expressions of the faces they saw. It turns out that they were able to recognize the fearful faces (but not surprised faces) much faster when the faces appeared specifically during an in-breath through the nose. This didn’t happen during an out-breath, nor with mouth breathing. The scientists also tested memory (associated with the hippocampus), where the same 60 subjects had to view images and later recall them. They found that their memory for these images was much better if they first encountered and encoded these images during an in-breath through the nose.
These findings show a system where our in-breath is like a remote control for our brains, directly affecting electrical signals that communicate with memory and emotional processing centers. By breathing in through our nose, we are directly affecting the electrical signals in the “smell” regions, which indirectly controls the electrical signals of our memory and emotional brain centers. In this way, we can control and optimize brain function using our in-breath, to have faster, more accurate emotional discrimination and recognition, as well as gaining better memory.
So taking a breath in through our nose can control our brain signals and lead to improved emotional and memory processing, but what about the out-breath? As mentioned earlier, slow, steady breathing activates the calming part of our nervous system, and slows our heart rate, reducing feelings of anxiety and stress. So while the in-breath specifically alters our cognition, the act of slow, deep breathing, whether the inhalation or exhalation, is beneficial for our nervous system when we wish to be more still.
In fact, mindful breathing emphasizes not only the breathing component, but also the mental component of paying attention and becoming aware of mind, body and breath together. By observing in a non-judgemental manner, without forcing ourselves to “get to” some special state, we are in fact then able to watch our minds and feel our bodies more clearly. This in turn becomes a path to insight and a practice we can keep working on.
Try This 5-Minute Breathing Practice
Paying attention to your breathing helps you cope with stress and anxiety. Take a few minutes to practice mindful breathing and explore how it feels to settle the mind and the body.
- HOW TO DO IT -
The most basic way to do deep, slow breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position.
Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time and place for this exercise. A regular practice of deep, slow breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.
Simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
To provide even more structure, and help you lead this practice for others, below are steps for a short guided meditation.
1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position. You could be seated on a chair or on the floor on a cushion. Keep your back upright, but not too tight. Hands resting wherever they’re comfortable. Tongue on the roof of your mouth or wherever it’s comfortable.
2. Notice and relax your body. Try to notice the shape of your body, its weight. Let yourself relax and become curious about your body seated here—the sensations it experiences, the touch, the connection with the floor or the chair. Relax any areas of tightness or tension. Just breathe.
3. Tune into your breath. Feel the natural flow of breath—in, out. You don’t need to do anything to your breath. Not long, not short, just natural. Notice where you feel your breath in your body. It might be in your abdomen. It may be in your chest or throat or in your nostrils. See if you can feel the sensations of breath, one breath at a time. When one breath ends, the next breath begins.
4. Now as you do this, you might notice that your mind may start to wander. You may start thinking about other things. If this happens, it is not a problem. It is very common and natural. Just notice that your mind has wandered. You can say “thinking” or “wandering” in your head softly. And then gently redirect your attention right back to the breathing.
5. Stay here for five to seven minutes. Notice your breath, in silence. From time to time, you’ll get lost in thoughts, then return to your breath.
6. After a few minutes, once again notice your whole body, seated here. Let yourself relax even more deeply and then offer yourself some appreciation for doing this practice today.