The way you breathe may help your brain work better

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Do you breathe through your mouth or your nose? One route activates a critical area in the brain. The other doesn’t. It’s a striking difference scientists say could be the body’s built-in way of more quickly responding to a dangerous situation.

The experiment starts by simply tracking a person’s natural breathing pattern.

Christina Zelano, PhD, Northwestern medicine neuroscience researcher: “So this is showing the activity in the brain while the person is breathing through the nose.”

The black line represents the inhale. It goes up as the subject takes air in through the nose. And so does brain activity.

Christina Zelano” “We found that the act of breathing in increases activity in parts of the brain that are important for smell, emotion and memory. This could in part be due to the fact that when you breathe through your nose, you activate smell neurons, which activate the parts of the brain that are important for sense of smell.”

It’s called the limbic system – a network in the brain critical for memory, learning and emotional processing, as well as smell. The red blotches represent that part of the brain firing up as air comes in through the nasal passages. But take a look at what happens when you breathe through your mouth … nothing. That’s when Northwestern Medicine researcher Christina Zelano and her colleagues added another element to the experiment. They showed study subjects images of different facial expressions and wondered how they would process the information ... and how quickly.

Christina Zelano: “This increase in activity during inhalation through the nose leads to faster response times to fearful stimuli in the environment.”

Some of the faces expressed fear … others surprise. Study subjects processed the images faster while breathing in, particularly through the nose.

Christina Zelano: “So just during natural breathing if you encounter a facial expression on a person’s face you can more quickly recognize a fearful expression if you encounter it while you are breathing in compared to while you are breathing out. This doesn’t happen when breathing through the mouth. Our findings are exciting and could lead to future breathing techniques that could lead to cognitive enhancement.”

And that’s the next step … to see if specific breathing patterns increase our ability to think on our feet or make rapid decisions.