Researchers at Trinity College Dublin have recently published an exciting new study which shows for the first time how breathing exercises, one of the most important parts of meditation and mindfulness practices, can increase focus.
Breathing exercises are well known to reduce stress, but this research sheds light on exactly how they can also help to improve focus.
In their paper, the team conclude that breathing directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline. Noradrenaline is a chemical messenger that is released when we are challenged, curious, focused or emotionally aroused. If it’s produced at the right level then it can also help the brain grow new connections.
The chemical composition of noradrenaline
Michael Melnychuk, lead author of the study, explains in more detail:
"Practitioners of yoga have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we can't focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we can't focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer."
The study found that participants who focused well while completing a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronization between their breathing patterns and their attention than those who had poorer focus.
Melnychuk and his team believe that it may be possible to use controlled breathing practices to stabilize attention and boost brain health.
For more detail on the study, read the Science Daily coverage of the study here.