Taking a deep breath in through the nose appears to help the human brain create laser-like focus on visuospatial tasks, according to a new study by a team of researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This paper, “ Human Non-Olfactory Cognition Phase-Locked with Inhalation ,” was published March 11 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour .
As the title of this electroencephalography-based study suggests, the researchers found that breathing in through the nose—without the intention of sniffing a scent or catching a whiff of something based on the olfactory-based sense of smell—synchronized EEG brain activity on a wavelength that helped to optimize visuospatial acuity. In many situations, survival of the fittest requires a perfect blend of nasal inhalations, laser-like mental focus, and quick thinking.
In the case of yoga and breathing exercises, the hypothesis is that these practices enable us to directly impact how our brains work by stimulating the vagus nerve and thereby increasing GABA levels in key area which raise parasympathetic nervous system “tone”, balancing-out relatively excessive sympathetic nervous system activity.
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Evolutionarily, the researchers speculate that nasal inhalation may be inherently linked to cognition as part of a survival mechanism rooted in olfaction. For example, like most mammals, humans rely on our sense of smell to sniff out danger, differentiate between delectable food and the stench of spoiled edibles, find an appropriate mate based on a blend of pheromones and common sense, etc.
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As a survival mechanism, the deeply embedded link between olfaction and cognition is key to making wise life-and-death decisions based on accurately sussing out complex environmental surroundings.
Therefore, the Weizmann researchers developed a hypothesis that non-olfactory related nasal inhalation might piggyback on this ancient olfactory-based sensory system. The researchers speculate that in modern daily life and while playing sports, breathing in through the nose might automatically alert neuronal ensembles to perk up visuospatial parts of the brain that optimize someone's focus.
Multitasking in the Mind's Eye
To test this hypothesis, Ofer Perl and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute recruited study volunteers to take a series of visuospatial tests on a computer. While participants were engaged in these tasks, a nasal breathing device was monitoring the passage air through the nostrils during inhalation and exhalation. Interestingly, the researchers found that study participants who inhaled milliseconds before performing a visuospatial task on a computer scored better than those who exhaled just before attempting the same task.
In a follow-up experiment, Perl et al. hooked all of the volunteers up to an EEG brainwave monitoring device in addition to the inhalation/exhalation nasal monitor. Then, study participants repeated the same visuospatial tasks from the first experiment. The researchers observed notable shifts in brainwave activity whenever a study participant inhaled through the nose immediately before executing the task at hand.
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Perl and his co-authors speculate that inhalation-related changes in brainwave activity may help someone’s mind become laser-focused by increasing awareness of specific details in the environment.
Notably, the researchers did not observe an improvement on word tasks associated with the inhalation phase of breathing in through the nose. Future studies will explore why nasal inhalation appears to boost cognitive function during non-olfactory visuospatial tasks but not during language-related tasks.
Nasal Inhalations Help an Athlete's Brain Have a Better Eye for the Ball
Athletes in every sport that requires hand-eye coordination to hit a moving target are notorious for using various breathing techniques to increase mental focus and optimize sports performance.
Observationally, it’s easy to see how elite-level players at Grand Slam tournaments—or the Indian Wells finals taking place on March 17, 2019—use a combination of diaphragmatic breathing and nasal inhalations in the milliseconds before a big serve and throughout a tennis match.
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Why do tennis so many players practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing in the moments before serving and take one big, turbocharged inhale right before an explosive serve? Neuroscience-based research suggests there are a few psychophysiological reasons that these two breathing techniques improve task performance both on and off the court.
First, taking a deep diaphragmatic breath in through the nose, followed by a long, slow exhale through pursed lips (like you're blowing out a candle) is the quickest way to calm your nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing is key to maintaining guts, wits, and grace under pressure in sport and life.
"Whether it's sports, music, speech or even allocating attention, our study suggests that timing is not a unified process, but that there are two distinct ways in which we make temporal predictions and these depend on different parts of the brain," lead author Assaf Breska, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.
During the exhalation phase of diaphragmatic belly breathing, the vagus nerve squirts out a tranquilizer-like substance called "vagusstoff." This so-called “vagus substance” is also known as acetylcholine. ACh (i.e. vagusstoff) is the primary neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system and counteracts “fight, flight, or freeze” stress responses.
Hacking the vagus nerve via deep, belly breathing techniques can calm anyone’s autonomic nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing is a universally accessible cost-free way to quell performance anxiety anyplace and anytime.
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Another easy way to hack the brain-body connection via a specific breathing technique is to take a deep inhale through your nasal passages—that is robust enough to instantly fill your lower diaphragm like an oxygen balloon—followed by a quick exhale.
Most world-class tennis players will either consciously or subconsciously practice diaphragmatic breathing in the moments leading up to each serve as road-tested way to stay calm, cool, and collected. However, in the milliseconds before tossing the ball up to swing at their serve, most players take a quick inhale followed by an abdominal thrust exhale (often accompanied by a grunt) just as the racket makes contact with the ball.
Although athletes and people from all walks of life have intuitively practiced various nasal breathing technique as a way to sharpen their attention, until recently, there was a dearth of science-based research to explain how and why nasal breathing helps to focus the mind.
Most tennis players and their coaches are probably unaware that human non-olfactory cognition becomes phase-locked via nasal inhalation ( Perl et al., 2019 ). That said, a long time ago, professional tennis players figured out through trial-and error that breathing in through the nose immediately before serving a tennis ball increases the odds of "acing it" and decreases the odds of double faulting.
Later today, Roger Federer faces off against Dominic Thiem in the California desert at the Indian Wells finals. If you’re able to watch this match—or while observing any tennis match in the future—pay close attention to how the players intuitively use non-olfactory nasal breathing to improve mental focus and visuospatial task performance milliseconds before each serve.
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