Yogis, non-yogis, long-term meditators, and short-term 'dabblers' alike will all agree that meditation improves focus. But, until now, no studies had shown how breathing influences attention in the brain. New research explores the neurophysiological effects of controlled breathing.
Lately, more and more studies have confirmed that yoga and mindfulness benefit the brain as much as the body.
Just 25 minutes of yoga or mindfulness have been shown to improve brain function and boost energy levels, for example.
Yoga can make you more resilient to stress, and some studies have even found the molecular explanation for this; practicing either yoga or mindfulness can reduce the genetic changes that lead to stress.
As a wonderful perk in addition to all of the benefits above, meditation may also be the solution to age-related cognitive decline.
A recent study has suggested that the practice can keep our brains healthy and youthful in the long run — but the findings were just observational, so the study could not explain causality.
However, new research may help us to understand the "why" and "how." Some neurophysiological reactions that occur as a result of breathing-centered meditation practices are brought to light in the new study, which was led by Michael Melnychuk, a Ph.D. researcher at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, Ireland.
In the paper — which is published in the journal Psychophysiology — Melnychuk and his colleagues show how controlled breathing affects levels of a neurotransmitter called noradrenaline, a "stress hormone" that can cause our hearts to beat faster and our pupils to dilate when we're excited.
In the right amount, the researchers explain, noradrenaline creates new connections between brain cells, and the study centered on how levels of this neurotransmitter changed in a brain area called the locus coeruleus.
This is the production site of noradrenaline and a region known to be involved in both attention and breathing.
Studying breathing, attention, and the brain
Melnychuk explains the function of noradrenaline, saying, "Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain."
"When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can't focus," he says. "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."
To examine the effect of breathing on attention, the brain's locus coeruleus, and noradrenaline, the researchers used neuroimaging techniques and measured the pupil dilation of participants while they performed cognitive tasks that required great focus.
The researchers monitored and calculated the participants' breathing, reaction time, and activity in the locus coeruleus brain area.
Melnychuk and his team found that study participants who focused better on these tasks had better coupling between respiration patterns and attention. Additionally, activity in the locus coeruleus increased as participants breathed in and decreased as they breathed out.
"Put simply," Melnychuk explains, "this means that our attention is influenced by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. It is possible that by focusing on and regulating your breathing, you can optimize your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronized."
Findings might explain meditation benefits
The researchers explain that their findings help to explain why meditators who practice breathing-centered practices report increased focus and have healthier-looking brains.
Senior investigator Ian Robertson, the co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, says, "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," he continues.
The findings may be useful for treating people with attention deficit disorder, but also for healthy seniors who wish to keep their mind agile well into old age.
"Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long-term meditators," adds Robertson. "More 'youthful' brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks."
"Our research offers one possible reason for this — using our breath to control one of the brain's natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right 'dose' helps the brain grow new connections between cells."