A study by Trinity College Dublin suggests a neurophysiological link between the breath and attention.
Yoga has maintained for many thousands of years that controlling the breath has many benefits, including gaining mastery over the fluctuations of the mind leading to meditation.
To my knowledge so far there is little scientific evidence to support this claim.
Research by Trinity College Dublin shows for the first time that breathing practices directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.
NORADRENALINE & THE BREATH
Noradrenaline is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused. When produced at the right levels it helps the brain grow new connections.
The study suggests the way we breathe directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study carried out by researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Global Brain Health Institute 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 authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.
NORADRENALINE & MEDITATION
Michael Melnychuk, PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, and lead author of the study, explained:
“Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. 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. 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.”
ATENTION & THE BREATH
“This study has shown that as you breathe in locus coeruleus activity is increasing slightly, and as you breathe out it decreases. Put simply 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 optimise your attention level and likewise, by focusing on your attention level, your breathing becomes more synchronised.”
The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. The findings were recently published in a paper entitled ‘Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama’ in the journal Psychophysiology. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for people with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.
NORADRENALINE & PRANAYAMA
There are traditionally two types of breath-focused practices — those that emphasise focus on breathing (mindfulness), and those that require breathing to be controlled (deep breathing practices such as pranayama). In cases when a person’s attention is compromised, practices which emphasise concentration and focus, such as mindfulness, where the individual focuses on feeling the sensations of respiration but make no effort to control them, could possibly be most beneficial. In cases where a person’s level of arousal is the cause of poor attention, for example drowsiness while driving, a pounding heart during an exam, or during a panic attack, it should be possible to alter the level of arousal in the body by controlling breathing. Both of these techniques have been shown to be effective in both the short and the long term.
Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “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 realised. 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.”
“Our findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. 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.
NORADRENALINE & FOCUSED ATTENTION
This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost the health of their brain using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.”
Noradrenaline will mobilise the brain and body for action reaching much higher levels during situations where we feel threatened or perceive danger. Noradrenaline release is at its lowest during sleep, while rising during wakefulness.
- Noradrenaline promotes arousal and alertness, vigilance, enhanced and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention.
- Noradrenaline increases restlessness and anxiety, the heart rate and blood pressure rise, with the release of glucose from energy stores, increases blood flow to skeletal muscle and reduces blood flow to the gastrointestinal system.
Noradrenaline is produced in nuclei that are small yet exert powerful effects on other brain areas. The most important of these nuclei is the locus coeruleus, located in the pons. Outside the brain, norepinephrine is used as a neurotransmitter by sympathetic ganglia located near the spinal cord and is also released directly into the bloodstream by the adrenal glands.
RETICULAR ACTIVATING SYSTEM
The reticular activating system, or RAS, is a piece of the brain that starts close to the top of the spinal column and extends upwards around two inches. It has a diameter slightly larger than a pencil.
All of your senses (except smell, which goes to our brain’s emotional centre) are wired directly to this bundle of neurons that’s about the size of your little finger.
Often, the RAS is compared to a filter that makes sure your brain doesn’t have to deal with more information than it can handle. Thus, the reticular activating system plays a big role in the sensory information you perceive daily.
The RAS is the gatekeeper of information that is let into the conscious mind and is responsible for filtering the massive amounts of information your sensory organs are constantly throwing at it and selecting the ones that are most important for your conscious mind to pay attention to.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT & WHAT CAN BE SAFELY IGNORED
The conscious mind can only handle small amounts of information at any one time. It is uniquely suited to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant pieces of information. For example, it distinguishes between the honk of a car right next to you and one far down the street.
WHAT GETS THROUGH
It is said that what we focus on or what we decide is important is what gets through. If we decide to buy a new car, and we know the model and colour, we then see the same car everywhere.
The function of the RAS is often used as a means of setting intentions and goals with a view to manifesting them into the world or getting want we want. (NLP)
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