‘Meditate’ is the advice passed around for everything — from stress to depression. And with good reason. Past research has well established that meditation can improve your attention span in old age, reduce stress levels, lower risk of depression, and ease anxiety and improve your cardiovascular health. Meditating for just 10 minutes every day can help prevent your mind from wandering and reduce repetitive, anxious thoughts.
To date, however, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested. A new research has explained, for the first time, the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.
The research shows for the first time that breathing – a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices – directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused, and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser.
In other words, the way we breathe, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study was carried out by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity. It found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention than those who had poor focus.
Lead author Michael Melnychuk said: “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study, we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can’t focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can’t focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
“This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing you can optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”
So, take up meditation and breathing exercises for increased focus, better productivity and overall well-being.
The study has been published in the journal Psychophysiology.