Breathing is vital to humans- replenishing the bloodstream with oxygen and eliminating carbon dioxide with essential regularity. A new study discovered that the breathing can actually enhance emotional judgements (fear) and memory recall.
This study utilized 60 participants, each presented with pictures of faces showing expressions of either fear or surprise. They are then asked to indicate, as quickly as they could, which emotion each face was expressing while simultaneously recording their breathing. The same individuals were shown pictures of objects on a computer screen and were told to remember them while simultaneously recording their breathing as well. After that, they were then asked to recall those objects.
Researchers found that participants were able to recognize a fearful face more quickly if the face is encountered when breathing in compared to breathing out. This doesn’t seem to apply to when faces express surprise. Similarly, individuals were also more likely to remember a visual object if it is encountered during inhalation than during exhalation.
“One of the major findings in this study is that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation compared with exhalation,” said lead author Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”
Moreover, the route of breathing has also been found to play a critical role to these effects. That is, when the individual breathes through the mouth instead of nose, emotional judgements (fear) and memory recall don’t seem to enhance. Hence, these findings support the idea that passive inhalation of air through the nose can selectively enhance reaction times to fearful stimuli and the accuracy of recognition on visual objects. These imply that during a dangerous situation, rapid breathing may be helpful.
“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster. As a result you’ll spend proportionally more time inhaling than when in a calm state. Thus, our body’s innate response to fear with faster breathing could have a positive impact on brain function and result in faster response times to dangerous stimuli in the environment,” says Zelano.