When stressed or irritated by someone or something, everyone knows to take a deep breath and count to ten. That would seem to suggest that a deep breath is somehow good at calming the brain. Well, latest research has found exactly that.
For over 2,000 years, Buddhists and yoga gurus have promoted the benefits of breath-focused meditation. Modern meditation practice usually starts with focusing on inhalation and exhalation. But it was generally considered that ‘clearing the mind’ of all thoughts was the aim of meditation and that focusing on breathing was a way to help us to clear the mind. However, latest research, carried out at Trinity College Dublin, has found an interesting connection between focused breathing and brain health.
Firstly, lets deal with the science bit. Noradrenaline is an important brain chemical, which is released when we are challenged and emotionally aroused. This chemical is the brain fertilizer because it helps to promote growth of neurons and it helps our brains to form new neuro-networks.
Although noradrenaline is an essential chemical, an incorrect balance in the brain can cause us some harm. For example, too little can result in lethargy, lack of concentration and even depression.
Now comes the interesting bit. The research carried out in Dublin found a connection between the amount of noradrenaline produced, our concentration levels and our breathing.
The team at Trinity College measured breathing, reaction time and brain activity in the brainstem (the area where noradrenaline is produced). They found that levels of noradrenaline increase slightly when the subjects focused on their breathing. In turn, concentration levels and reaction times improved when noradrenaline levels increased.
It would appear that focusing on our breath can stimulate the brainstem to produce exactly the right levels of noradrenaline, which improves our attention and concentration.
By focusing on our breathing for a few minutes each day, levels of brain chemicals can get regulated and optimised, leading to an overall improvement in concentration and the ability to focus longer and deeper on tasks.
Meditation has long-term benefits too
Our brains usually lose mass as we age. However, brain mass in long-term meditators doesn’t lose as much mass when compared to brains of non-meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains are less likely to suffer from dementia and memory loss, possibly because neuro-networks stay strong and healthy.
Meditation or mindfulness is often taught to people who have suffered brain injury and the results can be very encouraging. Neurons can be stimulated to form new connections and thus achieve partial repair.
So, there really is a connection between meditation and brain health. Yogis have been advocating this for many many years and the latest research would suggest they are correct. The team at Trinity have provided a deeper understanding of the neurophysiological benefits of this ancient concept.
Perhaps the secret to a healthy brain is indeed to practice regular breath-focused meditation.
For more on meditation, take a look at my podcasts.