While we associate the term ‘breath’ with an autonomic function of our body—how often do you consciously tell yourself to breathe?—our ancestors afforded respiration a certain gravity. The act of breathing has been linked to “life force” and “spirit,” the latter implying an invisible and necessary force in our lives. If we’re breathing we’re alive, and the more in touch we are with how we’re breathing, the better off we are.
Today there exists plenty of literature discussing how the conscious control and manipulation of breathing changes our nervous systems and affects neurochemistry. But a simple fact—folk advice you’ve probably heard your entire life—has gone unanswered: why does deep breathing calm us?
New research from a team out of Stanford may have solved this puzzle. The group’s experimentations on mice targeted a bundling of three thousand neurons located inside the brainstems of animals called the ‘breathing pacemaker,’ a complex network that appears to control breathing.
Scientists identified sixty-five types of neurons inside the pacemaker. They were then able to control various neuronal groups by turning certain ones on and off. For example, during an experiment last year researchers stopped mice from sighing by targeting one such group.
In this new study the Stanford team disabled a different cluster, which caused little immediate change in behavior. Yet after the scientists put those mice in an unfamiliar territory they calmly groomed themselves, a stark reversal of their usual response, which involves anxious movement, uncertainty, and plenty of sniffing. As the NY Times reports,
It turned out that the particular neurons in question showed direct biological links to a portion of the brain that is known to be involved in arousal. This area sends signals to multiple other parts of the brain that, together, direct us to wake up, be alert and, sometimes, become anxious or frantic.
Shutting down brain regions is how many responses to stimulation are disabled. Certain forms of meditation quiet the amygdala; flow states are marked by a lack of activity in the prefrontal cortex; even the pain response can be shut off, which turns out to be quite dangerous: pain is a response to trouble. People who don’t feel pain can sustain life-threatening injuries without realizing it.
When one region is deactivated, others are activated, provoking their own response. While ‘meditation’ is often lumped into one practice, there exist numerous types of meditation. For example, compassion meditation results in the activation of the insula and motor cortex; devotional meditation kicks the visual cortex into gear; and in focused attention the prefrontal and parietal cortices get to work.
Breathing is the entry point to many forms of meditation. Veterans attempting to reintegrate into society have utilized calming breathing techniques. Besides soothing their nervous system, the breath also offers a stable point of focus, which creates cognitive and emotional space between the barrage of imagery and the present moment. Coping, then healing, can be found in the breath.
Like many animals, mice navigate their environment through smell. Signals causing alarm create further alarm. By losing their ability to worry the mice remained tranquil. In certain circumstances this can be a deadly response, though it also eliminates unnecessary anxiety arising from false alarms. People who suffer from obsession-compulsion disorder, which involves a gating system in the brain, might benefit from this research. Insights from this study led the scientists to believe that “taking deep breaths is calming because it does not activate the neurons that communicate with the brain’s arousal center.”
Since we were children we’ve been told to “take a deep breath” when angry or upset. Locating the exact physiological mechanism for this response not only empowers us with the knowledge that yes, it really works, but could potentially lead to therapeutic applications of shutting down these neurons when stimulation is overwhelming in those who have experienced major trauma or anxiety disorder. Training your mind to calm itself is no easy endeavor. For those who have trouble doing so, this valuable treatment could make a difference, should further research reveal similar results.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.