Humans, in a variety of situations and religious practices, have long engaged in deep breathing to calm and centre — for so long, that it can’t be just a philosophical response! Researchers have been attempting for decades to nail down why deep breathing affects us the way it does. A new study led by Stanford University shows that the answer may be buried deep in the structure of our brains.
The team, who published their work recently in Science, built on the aforementioned decades of work with mouse neurons. Nearly 30 years back, UCLA researchers identified a knot of interlinked neurons in the brains of animals, including mice and humans, which appeared to handle most of our breathing. They called this knot of neurons the “breathing pacemaker.”
Now that genetic science has become more sophisticated, the Stanford-led team is able to tease a few mysteries out of this knot, by selectively disabling the genes behind particular types of cells in this pacemaker. In one experiment, they disabled one breathing related neuron in mice, and then placed the mice in unfamiliar cages. In regular mice, this would cause them to sniff around, trying to get a handle on their new surroundings in anxiety. Instead, the mice sat and calmly groomed themselves, as though everything were completely familiar and normal. This pointed to an intriguing connection between rate of breathing and autonomic anxiety response.
“It turned out that the particular neurons in question showed direct biological links to a portion of the brain that is known to be involved in arousal. This area sends signals to multiple other parts of the brain that, together, direct us to wake up, be alert and, sometimes, become anxious or frantic. […]
The disabled neurons would [normally] alert the brain that something potentially worrisome was going on with the mouse since it was sniffing, and the brain should start ramping up the machinery of worry and panic. So a few tentative sniffs could result in a state of anxiety that, in a rapid feedback loop, would make the animal sniff more and become increasingly anxious.
Or, without that mechanism, it would remain tranquil, a mouse of Zen.”
Though this research is preliminary, the team is cheered by the fact that our breathing pacemakers resemble those of mice, even though the rest of our brains do not. This early work could lead to greater knowledge of the calming effects of breathing, and may assist in relaxing future folks who maybe need a little top-down assistance. (Like me, I hope — meditation shmeditiation…) Until then, keep calm and breathe deeply — research is simply proving what our bodies have known forever!