Breathing Affects Memory and Fear

Pain Relief Coach

So, you may be thinking, I breathe so I stay alive, right?! Well, a study from Northwestern University reports that the rhythm of your breathing can actually influence the neural activity of your brain that enhances memory recall and emotional judgment.

Breathing is not just for oxygen. It is now linked to brain function and behavior.

The Northwestern Medicine scientists, for the first time, have discovered that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain. This activity then enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

These effects on behavior depend basically on whether you breathe in or breathe out and whether you inhale through the nose or mouth.

In this study, they found that individuals were able to identify a fearful face more quickly if they encountered the face when breathing in compared to breathing out. They also found that individuals were more likely to remember an object if they encountered it on the inhaled breath than the exhaled one. However, when they were breathing through the mouth, the effect disappeared.

The study was published in 2016 in the Journal of Neuroscience. The lead author of the study, Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said “One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation. When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

Northwestern scientists were studying seven patients with epilepsy who were scheduled for brain surgery when they first discovered these differences in brain activity. To identify the origins of their seizures, a surgeon implanted electrodes into the patients’ brains a week prior to the surgery. Because of the implant, the scientists were able to acquire electrophysiological data directly from their brains. Those recorded electrical signals demonstrated that brain activity fluctuates with breathing. This activity occurs in brain areas where emotion, smell, and memory are processed.

Due to the discovery by the scientists, this led them to question whether cognitive functions that are usually associated with these brain areas, the fear processing and memory areas, in particular, could also be affected by simply breathing.

Wait, what? Just breathing?

pain relief coach fear

The amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing.
The picture is from NeuroScience News.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped mass of gray matter and part of the limbic system which is a group of interconnected structures of the brain located beneath the cortex and common to all mammals. It is strongly linked to emotional processing. In particular, fear-related emotions. In contrast, psychopaths lack fear, conscience, and morality.

As part of the study, 60 subjects were asked by scientists to make rapid and quick decisions on emotional expressions in the lab environment while recording their breathing. The subjects had to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing when presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise.

So, when the faces were encountered during inhalation, the study subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. However, this was not true for faces expressing surprise. Another fact was that these effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. So, the bottom line was the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

In another experiment that was aimed at assessing memory function — tied to the hippocampus part of the brain — the same subjects were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and told to remember them. Later, they were asked to recall those objects, the Researchers found that recall was better if the images were encountered during inhalation.

The findings during this study imply that rapid breathing may present an advantage when someone is in a dangerous situation, Zelano said.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” Zelano said. “As a result, you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment.”

Another possible insight into the research is on the basic mechanisms of meditation or focused breathing. “When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano noted. (1)

Happy breathing all!

About the author

Raeann Cain

Hi, I'm Raeann and over 20 years ago I had a terrible experience with low back pain that left me rolling out of bed, crawling on my hands and knees to the bathtub. I could not even stand up because I was in so much pain! After meeting a neurosurgeon who thought I was too young for surgery, he sent me on another path with alternative methods. Now, through many hours of training including pain science, neuroscience, and following the latest evidence-based methods of therapy, it is time to give the power back to the individual who is hurting and give them the truth on how the body heals!

  • Wow, this is great information. I have a friend that is always telling me to breath when I get stressed out about something. I know it works but didn’t know the science behind it. Good Stuff!

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