The yogis have been right, scientists say.
“Inhale… and exhale…” The yoga teacher in your life has probably long been telling you to always return to the breath. A new study from Trinity College Dublin claims that when it comes to brain health, this advice is spot-on, and examined exactly how cognition is affected by breathing.
“Practitioners of yoga have claimed for 2,500 years that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysical 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,” wrote Michael Melnychuk, the lead author of the study. He is a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. Noradrenaline, he writes, is like an all-purpose activator in the brain. If we’re stressed, there’s too much of it and we feel unfocused. Too little, we’re sluggish and again, can’t focus. But if the balance is just right, “emotions, thinking and memory and much clearer,” he wrote. This chemical messenger may also help the brain grow new connections between the cells, keeping the brain acting younger.
In the study, the researchers found that participants who focused well on a demanding task had better breath synchronization than those who were poorly focused, suggesting that breath control practices can be used to stabilize attention and possibly boost the health of the brain.
Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and principal investigator of the study wrote, “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.”
Researchers hope that future studies can look into ways to use breath control to assist people with cognitive issues such as ADHD, traumatic brain injury and mental decline associated with aging.