“When the Breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the Breath is still, so is the mind still.” - Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Most of us intuitively know that when our breathing is slow and calm, our mind is too. Likewise, our mind usually follows suit when our breathing is fast and erratic. Ancient yogic and mindfulness practices (such as Buddhism) also understood this relationship. They emphasized the breath-mind connection, for example, using the breath as an anchor to calm the mind during meditation.
Although this breath-mind relationship has been used in ancient traditions for millennia, modern science has only recently begun revealing the mechanisms behind how it works.
The Link Between Breathing and Mind
It turns out that each breath we take influences our brain chemistry. When we inhale, activity in our locus coeruleus increases, and when we exhale, it decreases. This is significant because this brain region releases a vital neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, which is critical to our attention.
Researchers from Stanford University’s School of Medicine discovered a specific subpopulation of neurons in the brainstem that project onto high-order brain areas, such as the locus coeruleus. These neurons watch our breathing and relate the messages to the rest of the brain, directly linking breathing to mental states. These breath-brain relationships suggest that breathing and attention are tightly coupled. One crucial link in this coupling is our nose.
Nasal Breathing and Brain Function
Even with odorless air, nasal breathing activates broad regions of the olfactory bulb. This brain region projects onto the limbic system, which partially regulates emotions and the autonomic nervous system. This means that nose breathing, in particular, is critical to harnessing the breath-mind connection.
Moreover, an intracranial EEG study found that this nasal stimulation doesn’t just impact the olfactory bulb. Instead, it was discovered that nasal breathing also harmonizes brainwave activity in the amygdala and hippocampus. Notably, the researchers found that this had quantifiable impacts on cognition in some cases.
For instance, participants were shown faces expressing fear or surprise, and they had to decide which it was quickly. Participants’ response times were faster when breathing through the nose versus the mouth. The participants also identified fearful faces faster during nasal inhalation than exhalation, which was not observed during mouth breathing.
The participants then performed a memory task, revealing that memory retrieval was better during nasal inhalation. This effect was not observed for mouth breathing. However, there wasn’t a statistically significant difference in the overall accuracy between nose and mouth breathing.
Alternate Nostrils to Alternate Brain Activity
Each nasal passageway might influence your mind differently, something ancient yogic traditions have long postulated. In general, yogis considered the left nostril to be associated with calm and introspective states and associate the right nostril with stimulating and high-energy states.
Recent research suggests that the yogis were onto something. EEG measurements during uni-nostril breathing revealed that airflow through the left nostril broadly reduced brainwave activity and stimulated brain regions associated with more calm and introspective states. Results from right-nostril breathing were less definite. But, the general conclusion was that we could use left-nostril breathing anytime we need to calm our minds. These findings may also open new therapeutic options for different brain disorders.
The Breath-Heart-Mind Connection: Better Decision Making in Two Minutes
Lastly, when we breathe slowly (at around 5-6 breaths per minute), we synchronize our cardiovascular and respiratory systems and increase heart rate variability (HRV). This puts us in a calm yet alert state, seemingly ideal for optimal mental function. In fact, research suggests this state might lead to better decision-making and memory.
In one study, participants learned to breathe slowly to maximize their HRV. They performed this breathing for just two minutes and then took a stressful decision-making test. The results showed that the participants performed significantly better after the slow breathing practice. They also felt less stress while taking the test—they were calm yet alert.
Another study found that 15 minutes of slow nasal breathing at 6 breaths per minute significantly improved executive function as measured by metrics like working memory capacity and cognitive flexibility. Overall, it seems that the simple act of slow breathing before a mental task boosts brain function.
Breathe to Change Your Mental State
The current research shows that there are many complex interdependent ways in which the breath and mind interact. We might use our left nostril to reach introspective states or perform slow breathing before making an important decision. The take-home message is clear in either case: We can use our breath to change our state of mind and enhance our mental function.
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About the Author
Nick Heath, PhD, is an atmospheric scientist, breathing researcher, Oxygen Advantage coach, and type-1 diabetic. His work focuses on optimal breathing for diabetes, chronic disease, and overall health and wellness. Learn more at thebreathingdiabetic.com or follow Nick on Instagram.