Deep breathing is a proven method to calm the nerves. Meditators who practice breathing techniques, known as pranyama, report the meditation breathing practices silence or slow down the mind. But how precisely do meditation and pranayama breathing affect the brain, and our moods? A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience examines a direct link between our cognitive function and nasal breathing.
Researchers used electrodes to test the electrical brain signals of seven epilepsy patients; the participants’ natural breathing rhythms matched the slow electrical rhythms in the brain. This occurred in the regions associated with the sense of smell. Researchers noted during nasal inhalation, the faster electrical rhythms of the amygdala, a region of the brain responsible for processing emotions, and the hippocampus, associated with emotions and memories, grew stronger.
As a control group, researchers examined 60 healthy people, to examine the effects nasal breathing has on emotional behavior and memory. These test subjects were shown photos of both frightened and surprised faces, and immediately asked to describe the emotional expression they saw. The test participants were able to identify the frightened faces much more quickly when inhaling through the nose, than when shown the photos during an exhale, or when breathing through the mouth.
The researchers also showed the test subjects’ photos, and then asked them to recall them later. The test subjects were able to recall the images much better, when shown the photos on an inhale through the nose.
The conclusion of the study suggested nasal breathing plays an integral part in coordinating electrical signals in the brain. In particular, the olfactory “smell” regions of the brain, that receive sensory input from our nose. It became clear that nasal breathing can affect our emotions and memory.
By controlling our breathing, we could actually improve our brain function. In turn, this develops both a more accurate and faster emotional recognition, and improve our memory. Studies have shown that controlled breathing, practiced as slow, measured inhalation and exhalation, can have very beneficial effects on our health.
A study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) showed that meditation literally rebuilt the brain’s grey matter. This is associated with a sense of self, memory, empathy, and feelings of stress. Test subjects practiced approximately 1/2 hour of mindfulness meditation daily. Consequently, they experienced significant improvement after only eight weeks. Another study showed that controlled breathing and meditation may protect and lengthen the telomeres. These are located at the ends of our chromosomes. If your chromosomes are healthy, your cells are healthy. This proves that meditation can improve cellular health.
In addition to physiological changes, meditation can also help emotionally and psychologically as well. Studies have proven that experienced meditators produce increased levels of melatonin. A study by the Chopra Center for Wellbeing compared a group of meditators to a group of non-meditators, and found that meditation has long term benefits. This includes improved mental and cellular health.
The Relaxation Response is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response; it is a deep sense of relaxation, that engages the parasympathetic nervous system. The Relaxation Response can be induced through controlled breathing, and other meditation practices.
According to Herbert Benson, M.D., of Harvard Medical School, the Relaxation Response counteracts the physiological effects of the fight or flight response, including stress, muscle tension, headaches, stomach upset, a racing heartbeat, and shallow breathing.
In conclusion, meditation and mindfulness practices that include conscious breathing practices, could have a profound effect on your mental, emotional and physical health.