Nose-breathing boosts memory, study finds

Nasal inhalation may help us retain olfactory memories longer.

  • A new study confirms a suspected connection between the nose and memory.
  • Twenty-four subjects memorized 12 smells delivered through a nasal cannula during two training sessions.
  • The results of the experiments suggest we can consolidate memories by breathing through our nose.

Scientists have been intrigued for some time about the effect that breathing has on the brain, and Big Think has discussed this before. Now, a new study, published this month in The Journal of Neuroscience, nails down the link between breathing through one's nose — as opposed to one's mouth — and the robust storage of memories.

"The idea that breathing affects our behaviour is actually not new. In fact, the knowledge has been around for thousands of years in such areas as meditation," said Artin Arshamian, the lead author of the study, which took place at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet. "But no one has managed to prove scientifically what actually goes on in the brain. We now have tools that can reveal new clinical knowledge."

How the study tested the effect of nose-breathing on memory

Nasal cannula. Photo credit: S. Bonaime/Shutterstock

One stumbling block to understanding how breathing through the nose affects the brain is that scientists' typical subjects — mice and rats — don't breathe through their nose. Therefore, sniffing out the truth of the matter requires human subjects. And, appropriately enough, the experiments involved smells.

The study's 24 subjects memorized 12 smells delivered through a nasal cannula during two training sessions. Afterward, they were given an hour off during which they were instructed to breathe exclusively through either their mouths or noses.

This was followed by exposure to a variety of scents, some of which were from their training sessions and some of which were new. Subjects were asked to differentiate between the two.

What the scientists found was that those who'd breathed through their noses during their hour off were more likely to recognize the scents from training sessions, suggesting that their nose-breathing had more effectively stored what they'd learned.

Next steps

Easier research implicated receptors in the olfactory bulb that can detect both scents and variations in airflow. Scientists have also seen different areas of the brain exhibit activity during inhaling and exhaling, but how this all ties together is as of yet unknown.

Arshamain tells KI News:

"The next step is to measure what actually happens in the brain during breathing and how this is linked to memory. This was previously a practical impossibility as electrodes had to be inserted directly into the brain. We've managed to get round this problem and now we're developing, with my colleague Johan Lundström, a new means of measuring activity in the olfactory bulb and brain without having to insert electrodes."

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose," Sherlock Holmes famously remarked.
  • In this lesson, Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes, teaches you how to optimize memory, Holmes style.
  • The goal is to expand one's limited "brain attic," so that what used to be a small space can suddenly become much larger because we are using the space more efficiently.

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

(MsMaria/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Our ability to behave rationally depends not just on our ability to use the facts, but on our ability to give those facts meaning. To be rational, we need both facts and feelings. We need to be subjective.
  • In this lesson, risk communication expert David Ropeik teaches you how human rationality influences our perception of risk.
  • By the end of it, you'll understand the pitfalls of your subjective risk perception system so that you can avoid these traps in the future.