Meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, have long been known to improve our ability to concentrate. A recent study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.
Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have several known cognitive benefits, such as increased ability to focus, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased mind wandering and emotional reactivity, along with many others. However, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested till date.
The study has been published in a paper entitled “Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama” in the journal Psychophysiology. The research findings has revealed for the first time that breathing which is a key component of meditation and mindfulness practices directly influences the levels of a natural chemical messenger called noradrenaline in the brain.
Noradrenaline is released when we are challenged, curious, worked up, focused or emotionally aroused. If it is produced at optimum levels, it helps the brain grow new connections. In other words, the way we breathe, directly impacts the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study findings revealed that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronization between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors of the study believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilize attention and boost brain health.
The lead author of the study, Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, explicated: “Yoga practitioners 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 cannot focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we cannot focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”
The study has demonstrated that as we breathe in, locus coeruleus activity increases slightly, and as we breathe out, it decreases. In simple words, this means that our attention is affected by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. By concentrating on and regulating our breathing, it is possible to optimize our attention level and similarly, by focusing on our attention level, our breathing becomes more synchronized.
The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for individuals with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.
Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath and regulating it in precise ways—a practice known as pranayama—changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind.”
According to Robertson, these findings have noteworthy implications for research into brain aging. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. This research offers one possible reason for this—by regulating our breath we can control noradrenaline, which in the right amount would help the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost their brain health using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.