Brain and the Breath

November 2013

28,800 times each day we breathe.  Our life depends on it, though most of us rarely pay it any mind.  Perhaps we should reconsider. Simply paying attention to our breath provides numerous benefits for our physical, intellectual, emotional and behavioral health.  At the most basic level, on inhalation the breath oxygenates our blood which then distributes this oxygen to all of the organs in our body, including the brain. On exhalation the breath expels carbon dioxide, which is toxic to our body.  This miraculously happens without giving any attention at all.  The benefits intensify greatly when we focus attention on our breath and exhalations become longer and more complete.  Joseph Pilates describes this process as an internal shower in which proper blood circulation flushes the toxins out and leaves organs nourished with life-giving oxygen.  More oxygen means better functioning organs, including the cognitive function of the brain, as well as a reduction of physical pain.  In Joseph Pilates’ opinion, proper breathing requires exhalation of “every atom of impure air from your lungs in much the same manner that you would wring every drop of water from a wet cloth.”  He would tell his students that proper breathing, along with body focused movement, awakens dormant areas of the brain.

Current research findings also indicate that longer exhalation is key to reaping the many benefits of focused breathing.*  Focusing on the breath will naturally increase exhalation and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a sense of calm.  Longer exhalation also reduces the neural firing in amygdala of the brain (Wallin, 2007. pg 82).  This area is responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response, fear, being alert and checking for danger.  A reduction in neural firing translates into less reactivity and increased regulation of mood and behavior (Siegel, 2010).  Increased activity is found in areas of the brain which inhibit the amygdala as well.  This inhibition allows for greater access to functions of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain which is higher in location and functioning (Siegel, 2010. Pg. 155, 291).   These functions include our ability to concentrate, plan, comprehend and retain new information.

Regular practice can change the patterns of neural firing.  Neural pathways, like muscles, become stronger with repetition.  Greater regulation of mood and behavior and increased focus and critical thinking become lasting results.

Paying attention to the breath is the core of mindful meditation and mindful movement practices.  These practices are sometimes intimidating or devalued by individuals because of their simplicity.  People believe they are missing something, that such simplicity couldn’t possibly be beneficial.  It can be simple.  You take time to just breathe.

The use of focused breath in psychotherapy is of great value.  During sessions, client’s may be able examine their experiences from a more grounded and self-aware place.  Additionally, focused breath can be utilized to manage stress, emotions and behaviors that may be problematic at times.  Perhaps most notable is the lasting effects on brain, mood and behavior as described above.  These effects are associated with interoception (awareness/perception of the inner world of the body), the topic of next month’s newsletter.  Thanks for reading!

Joseph Pilates, 1954.  Return to Life.

Daniel J Siegel, M.D.  2010.  Mindsight; The New Science of Personal Transformation.

David J. Wallin, 2007. Attachment in Psychotherapy.