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The Connection Between Breath and Mind

brain function edgar adrian emotions galen of pergamon phrenic nerve pre-botzinger complex vagus nerve May 12, 2023


Breathing is one of the most vital functions of our body, but it's much, much more than taking in oxygen and getting rid of carbon dioxide.  Your breath is like a window on to your inner world revealing in its patterns, much about your state of mind and body. And when we place our attention on our breath and breathe consciously, we can influence our state of mind, emotions, and body for the better. The earliest yogis some 2,500 years ago were the ones to develop the very first breath practices and variations of these practices have continued to be handed down from teacher to student over thousands of years because they… work, doctors and scientists also have been seeking to understand what this connection between the body, mind and emotions is. The breathing brain relationship is a deep topic but, in this article, I will share with you just a few a few of the studies that help to understand the core of the body-mind connection from a scientific point of view.

Let’s explore the connection between the breath and mind.


The Phrenic Nerve

Our scientific journey begins in the 1st century AD, with the legendary Greek physician, The Galen of Pergamon who was considered as one of the most important figures in the history of medicine and was known for his extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology and neurology but was particularly focused on breathing and the respiratory system. He was one of the first to uncover the connection between the breath and the mind.

While it sounds obvious now, Galen was the first to describe how our brain controls our breathing, that our lungs are a sponge-like structure that expands as we inhale and in coordination with the heart, distributes oxygen and nutrients throughout the circulatory system on the exhale. Galen also theorized that there is a nerve connection between the brain and the muscles which control breathing. Galen treated the Roman Gladiators after their fights and observed that when a warrior got an injury to his chest or particularly when the neck was broken, that they were rendered instantly unable to breathe normally or even had complete respiratory failure. Galen’s insight was that this breathing difficulty must be because there was damage to the nerve that runs between the brain and the diaphragm.

This nerve is known today as the phrenic nerve which gets its name from the Greek word “phren”, which means diaphragm and mind. Because to the ancient Greeks the diaphragm was responsible for our thoughts and emotions. This belief was later challenged by Galen and other ancient Greek physicians and philosophers such as Hippocrates, who believed that the brain was responsible for our mind and emotions. However, the idea of the diaphragm as mind persisted in some form for several centuries. Today, the phrenic nerve is still recognized as the primary nerve responsible for controlling the diaphragm muscle and regulating breathing in humans and the name, lives on.


Edgar Adrian

Fast forward nearly 2,000 years to the 1930s, British neuroscientist Edgar Adrian continued building on Galens discovery of the phrenic nerve by seeking to measure its electrical activity so that he could identify the signals in the brain that control our breathing.

Adrian dissected the brains of goldfish and found that when the phrenic nerve was stimulated with an electrical current, their diaphragm muscle would contract, and the fish would take a breath. Adrian's work on the phrenic nerve and its role in breathing was groundbreaking and has contributed to the development of treatments for respiratory conditions such as sleep apnea and COPD. Adrian was later awarded the Nobel prize for his discoveries which paved the way for further research.


The Pre-Botzinger Complex

In the 1980s University of California researcher Jack Feldman and his colleagues started to trace the electrical current from the nerve to the brain and found that it starts primarily from a group of around 10,000 neurons in the brainstem which is now called the "Pre-Bötzinger Complex". As the story goes, Feldman spontaneously named the area the pre-Bötzinger Complex as he glanced at a label of a wine bottle from a German village named Bötzinger. So the area of your brain which is controlling your breathing right now is actually named after a wine bottle.

So, what we understand is that to take a breath, electrical impulses from the pre-Botzinger complex and a few other regions of the brain travel down the phrenic nerve to make the diaphragm move and create respiration. Most of the time this is all unconscious, but you can also breathe consciously, breathing at certain rhythms or speeds which means that when you put your consciousness on your breathing you are taking control over the phrenic nerve with your mind- so indeed, the name 'phrenic' is indeed a literal description of the mind-body connection. Lets take a deep breath in and out and consider all that must be happening internally to make that happen.

The Vagus nerve

Another nerve which is core to the connection of information between the brain and body is the Vagus Nerve. The word "vagus" comes from the Latin term "vagari," which means "to wander" or "to roam." This is why the vagus nerve is called the "wandering nerve," as it is the longest nerve in the body traveling from the brain through the chest and abdomen, and has numerous branches that innervate various organs in the body playing a critical role in regulating the heart rate, digestion, breathing and more.

The Vagus is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is what you need to be active to go into states of relaxation, and healing. You can stimulate the vagus nerve through slow, deep breathing, and get a range of benefits, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved digestion, better sleep and reducing inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is a key contributor to a range of chronic health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's and simply through conscious breathing and activating the vagus nerve, you can potentially reduce inflammation and build a stronger overall health and sense of wellbeing. Let’s try it right now, lets take another slow deep breath in and let the breath go very slowly, like you have all the time in the world. Some of that relaxation you feel, particularly on the exhalation is the activation of the Vagus nerve and the relaxation response. If you keep going, you may start to notice other signs that the Vagus nerve is being stimulated, like saliva coming up in the mouth or an urge to yawn or a feeling of a pulsation in the body.


The Olfactory Nerves.

Lastly we have the connection between our nose to the brain- specifically, our olfactory nerves to the part of the brain which deals with smell. This makes sense right, if you breathe in through the nose, the area of the brain dealing with smell should light up. But what research has found is that the olfactory region also syncs up with parts of your brain which are core to memory and emotion- which is why no doubt you have experienced how certain smells you trigger memories or nostalgia for good or bad

In 2016 researchers from Northwestern University fitted subjects faces with a tube that could detect whether the subject was inhaling or exhaling at any particular moment and sat them in front of a computer where they flashed faces which are either afraid or surprised. As the subject made a quick decision to recognize the emotion on the screen, the researchers noted whether they were breathing in or breathing out and whether it was through the nose or the mouth. Later, they tested the subjects ability to recall these images.

What they found is that when you inhale through the nose you can recognize emotions more quickly and remember them more clearly later.

This is because by breathing through the nose, the olfactory area coordinates with the amygdala, the hippocampus and the insula which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala is responsible for survival instincts and strong emotions of anger, fear, and love which is why the study used faces that display surprise or fear. The hippocampus is important in memory and emotional processing which is why we remember things more easily when we breathe through the nose. And the insula is a part of our brain which plays a critical role in our ability to perceive the sensations of our body and understand our emotions which may be why yoga practices are so effective at increasing awareness and creating change within a person. 

But all of these effects disappear if you breathe through the mouth! In fact, a recent study on mouth breathing by Researchers at the University of Korea found that people who breathed through their mouths had decreased function in their brains

We are still very early days in our scientific understanding of the breath and mind connection and the evidence is in that by doing a conscious breathing practice, your brain lights up, you can process information more accurately, respond more quickly, and recall that information more easily later. You can reduce high blood pressure, stop chronic inflammation, increase exercise tolerance and more. And when we consider the collected wisdom of those who have done meditation, yoga and conscious breathing practices goes back over two millenia there are life changing rewards that come which may not ever be fully quantifiable.

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