How the Way You Breathe Affects What You Remember

Photo: Stanislaw Pytel/Getty Images

Focusing on your breath can be a powerful thing, in more ways than one. Most of the time, a long, slow inhale-exhale is thought of as a tool for relaxation, a simple way to relax both physically and psychologically (and research has shown it to be pretty effective at both). But a study published yesterday in the Journal of Neuroscience found a less soothing, though no less useful, purpose for regulating your breathing: The way you inhale and exhale may influence the way you react to danger.

The study authors analyzed data taken from the brains of seven people with epilepsy who, as preparation for surgery, had been fitted with brain implants so that doctors could track their seizures; conveniently, the implants also allowed the researchers to monitor the patients’ brain activity as they breathed. As their breath cycled in and out of the subjects’ bodies, they found, activity also ebbed and flowed in the areas of the brain that deal with emotion and memory.

To investigate this link in more detail, the authors recruited a group of healthy volunteers to view a series of faces depicting either fear or surprise. For each one, the subjects had to indicate as quickly as possible which emotion was showing on the screen; as the researchers timed them, they also tracked their breathing patterns and brain activity. For the fear faces, the study authors found, people had faster reaction times when they were inhaling through the nose than when they were exhaling (the same trend didn’t hold for the surprised faces, or when the subjects were mouth-breathers). In another experiment, people told to remember a string of images could later recall more of them if they’d originally memorized the pictures while inhaling.

Together, the researchers argued, the results suggest that one of the key elements of the fight-or-flight response — the rapid breathing that allows us to supply our bodies with extra oxygen — may also have a mental benefit, helping us both to spot threats quickly and to effectively file them away for later recall. “If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” co-author Christina Zelano, an assistant neurology professor at Northwestern University’s medical school, said in a statement. “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.” “Take a deep breath,” it seems, is a multifaceted piece of advice.

How the Way You Breathe Affects What You Remember