Meditation and ancient yogic breathing practices, such as pranayama, may act like a brain fertiliser, and strengthen our ability to focus on tasks, a study claims. Researchers at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland explained for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention. The study, published in the journal Psychophysiology, shows 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.
Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation, according to Ian Robertson from Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity “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 realised,” said Robertson.
“Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind,” he said. The study 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.
The researchers believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health. “Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind,” said Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience.
“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, researchers. 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, they said. “This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases,” said Melnychuk. “Put simply this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration,” he said.