Breathe, breathe in the air
Don't be afraid to care
Leave but don't leave me
Look around, choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you'll give and tears you'll cry
And all your touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be
Breathe – Pink Floyd
Nowadays it’s fashionable to breathe.
It never used to be. You just did it. All was banal. But then people used to drink water from the tap, or draw it out of a well. Instead we now consume it by the gallon (litre) in plastic bottles manufactured god knows where. And supposedly containing some pure spring water from France or high in some distant magical land where the air is fresh, the water clear, the animals frolic in a Pixar like haven of serenity....
We’ll believe (or subscribe to, and pay for) anything these days.
Having said that there is nothing new under the sun as they say. It was in fact always fashionable to breathe. If you belonged to a certain enlightened class. Or social set. Or partied with the Maharishi and were part of the rock star or celebrity firmament.
Yoga. Qi gong. Meditative practices, Zen or otherwise. Systems that were pre-packaged in an earlier age. Ritualised and followed with zeal. The promise of Samsara. Or Nirvana. Or just peace amidst chaos.
Now it’s Wim Hof and the new marketing era is upon us. It’s fast becoming the trend to breathe once again. A different guru. One that wears his achievements on his sleeve, claims to have the Academy beating down his door to establish credibility and reveal hitherto misapprehended mechanisms of the human physique (and mind). Breathing is more than fashionable; it's becoming a way of life.
Have we really lost touch with how to breathe? Or did in fact we not know how to do so in the first place? Perhaps it’s as much a testament to the fast paced, hypertense time in which we are living. Threats have retreated from the forest shadows to be replaced with the anxiety of an always-on cultural sensibility. Where too much choice, or the disparaging glances of a narcissistic society impress a more insidious stress upon us: a constant effort to maintain a façade, keep up with the zeitgeist of opinion, gossip, alignment to causes, dispositions, and the proliferation self-branding that keeps all the social media plates spinning all the time.
Breathing the new way (or is it the old?) is about centering oneself. Re-establishing control over one’s hyperactive physiognomy as it remains electrified with all this pallaver in the world. Deeper, more fulsome inspirations. Languorous, controlled expirations. Slowing the system down. Re-connecting homeostatically with the parasympathetic system (Jerath et al, 2006).
This is at core about attention.
How and where one focuses attention ultimately governs one’s control over self, one’s response (reactive or, optimally, proactive) to the environment. To allow ourselves to be at the behest of environment, and reactive homeostasis (internal environment or bodily state) is to invite stress and entropy (towards chaos) into our personal space. Like a badly inflated balloon that increasingly bows to the ambient pressure outside (or a plastic bottle sinking ever deeper into the ocean), we will soon collapse inward, unable to balance our demeanour relative to our surroundings, helpless, subsumed. But if we can expand our own internal pressure, if not to resist so much as balance, establish equilibrium with the outside forces, then we are in a better place, asserting our own rightful position in the scheme of things. With a little practice and a little extra impetus, exertion, our inner pressure, can more than compensate for the outer, and propel us more assertively into the world to transport ourselves where we deign necessary. And to leave our mark as active agents.
From this perspective we might then see breathing as indeed that expression of a capacity to stamp our mark on our environment. Far better to be buoyant and capable of drifting on the wind than being subject to crushing gravitational forces that perpetually squash any capacity to move.
Evidence suggests (Jerath et al, 2006) that slowing the breath, taking it in more deeply, can help downregulate the sympathetic nervous system that normally prepares the individual for action, response (‘flight or fight’), and instead brings to bear the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This component of the Autonomic Nervous System is responsible for maintaining bodily functions when the individual is at rest, sustaining basic functions pertaining to feeding, digesting. These are the vital functions that can get on with keeping the organism operating properly (and optimally). We need to counterbalance a proclivity to be hyper stimulated, overactive in Sympathetic activation. Otherwise we are in danger of burn out due to stress, manic responsivity and preparedness to act constantly to keep attuned to a chaotic environment. Even on the Savannah, prey must find down time to rest and recuperate. As with the predator.
How we breathe has ramifications for our cognition. It is no coincidence, from this standpoint, that systematized practices with ancient origins reveal cognitive benefits when subject to more in-depth (scientific) scrutiny. Meditation is good for you! At the heart of meditative and mindful pratices the world over, is a strong tradition of focus on observing one’s breathing, and seeking to relax and breathe more slowly and deeply (as is won’t to be the case with relaxation anyway, including the aforementioned down regulation of SNS and instantiation of PNS activity). Restricting breathing can have marked impeding effects on cognition (Paulus et al., 2012), unsurprisingly. Attention is disrupted and alerted to a homeostatic change that will accompany circumstances that prompt a shift in respiratory patterns (Heck et al., 2017; Paulus et al., 2012). This invokes interoceptive signalling.
The insular cortex is involved in the regulation of homeostasis (Craig, 2002; Craig, 2009; Strigo and Craig, 2017; Hannapour et al., 2018), including processing the attentional salience of information pertaining to bodily state awareness in response to environmental changes. Ultimately, this leads to the formation of emotional responses based upon this information. The sensation (interoceptive awareness) of perceived pain is also modulated by respiration, including reduced perceived intensity with slow, deep breathing, and with inspiration – breathing in (Heck et al., 2017). My own Master’s thesis (Gallagher,1995) concerned attentional focus on a particular form of (Tibetan) meditative chanting, key in which is the proper expression of a mantra, or phrase done in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing on the exhalation, intoned with a resonant sound. As with singing. The central proposition of my research was how this attentional focus, and it’s bearing on how the brain galvanises executive control processes, can mitigate against response to homeostatic signals of an interoceptive and noxious nature. In short, pain. Cold stressor pain, this being a proxy for environmental cold stress. One observation, aside from an increased capacity to tolerate the cold stressor when accompanied with this attentional focus on a meditative technique, was that the decision to withdraw from the test (the time course to such a decision being the dependent variable metric) would occur at the renewal point in the cycle of breaths - i.e at the termination of an iteration of chanting coinciding with the end of the exhalation...
So if you want to improve your cognition, and enhance your health, both physical and mental, you need to breathe. There are techniques available to assist you in doing this correctly, including devices that you can employ to provide the right feedback to this progress. There is a revolution afoot, and at our disposal are many sources of inspiration. Although we mustn’t neglect the expiration! Indeed, a line of thinking proposes that a key to increased cardiovascular fitness and which benefits the whole mind-body collective, relates to CO2 tolerance (https://powerspeedendurance.com/experiments-art-breath/). A test of one’s capacity to tolerate build up of CO2 involves nasal breathing and a long controlled exhalation (through the nose, as we should only ‘blow out’ CO2 via the mouth when ‘hanging out’ as it were during intense exercise) for as long as can be managed. ‘Normal’ is in the range of 20-40 seconds, and ‘elite’ might be seen above 80 seconds. Interestingly, when I tried this, and having always felt prone to inefficient breathing patterns marked by irregular and tense characteristics, I expected to perform poorly. My first attempt came in at around 68 seconds, and moments later (though you aren’t meant to repeat this), I managed 87 seconds! This is why it is important to gain objective measures of one’s behaviour – we seldom exhibit in our self-perception the characteristics that manifest to others!
Forget what you ‘know’. Find objectivity in your quest to improve and optimise yourself. Breathing is a means to centre your ‘self’. It is a direct route into your homeostatic functions that you can access and direct. It can restore balance (‘sympathovagally’) and set you on course to focus your mind, intention, attention. Consequently, this is the route towards achieving goals, performing at your best, and being in tune with the environment.
Inhale, sigh and let all it all out, repeat.
Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 3, 655–666. doi: 10.1038/nrn894
Craig, A.D. (2009). How do you feel — now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature REviews Neuroscience. 10, 59-70
Gallagher, D (1995). Cognitive-Induced Analgesia: Attentional Processes and Meditative Chanting. MSc thesis, Lancaster University.
Hassanpour, M.S., Simmons, W.K., Feinstein, J.S., Luo, Q., Lapidus, R.C., Bodurka, J., Paulus, M.P., and Khalsa, S.S. (2018), The Insular Cortex Dynamically Maps Changes in Cardiorespiratory Interoception. Neuropsychopharmacology, 43, 426–434
Heck, D. H., McAfee, S. S., Liu, Y., Babajani-Feremi, A., Rezaie, R., Freeman, W. J., Wheless, J. W., Papanicolaou, A. C., Ruszinkó, M., Sokolov, Y., & Kozma, R. (2017). Breathing as a Fundamental Rhythm of Brain Function. Frontiers in neural circuits, 10, 115. https://doi.org/10.3389/fncir.2016.00115
Jerath, R., Edry, J.W., Barnes, V.A. and Jerath, V. (2006). Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: Neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system. Medical Hypotheses Volume 67, Issue 3, , Pages 566-571
Paulus, M.P., Flagan, T., Simmons, A.N., Gillis, K., Kotturi, S., Thom, N., Johnson, D.C., Van Orden, K.F., Davenport, P.W. and Swain, J.L. (2012). Subjecting Elite Athletes to Inspiratory Breathing Load Reveals Behavioral and Neural Signatures of Optimal Performers in Extreme Environments. Plos One, 7, 1-11
Strigo I.A., and Craig A.D. (2016). Interoception, homeostatic emotions and sympathovagal balance.Phil. Trans. R. Soc.B371: 20160010.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” - Socrates (said just before he scored the winning goal...)
To quantify thyself...well that’s the key to measurable improvement... -Me, just now
Today I am unleashing my inner cyborg.
To access my ‘optimal state’, I need to plug in. As a step towards becoming that self-actualised ‘guru’ fully in tune with mind and body first I need a little feedback. Fortunately, science and technology are providing the tools for this.
I sit here ‘wired up’ and ready to roll. On my head is a Muse-S EEG system to monitor brain activity and cognitive-attentional state. The latest complement to this, and a key tool in the armoury, is a Polar H10 chest strap sitting just above my diaphragm. The latter measures my Heart Rate Variability. In lay person’s terms this refers to the variation between individual heart beats over time, and is an indicator of ‘sympathovagal balance’ (Strigo and Craig, 2016). It essentially refers to how your brain-body system uses the ‘accelerator’ and ‘brakes’ of the two main functions of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), to prepare your ‘homeostatic’ response to the environment. This means being ‘in sync’ and either ready for action, or in a state of rest and recovery: towards a healthier, positive and more balanced state of being. These two functions are the Sympathetic (SNS) and Parasympathetic (PNS) Nervous Systems. The former prepares the body to act, react (fight or flight), to rise to a challenge and to engage with stress. The latter promotes recovery, compensates to stress, puts the ‘brakes’ on so to speak.
If we are in a state of high Sympathetic activity all the time (always ‘on’) we are over stressed, and prone to the onset of ill-health. If we are 'overly' Parasympathetic we might not be getting out and about much or getting stuff done! It’s all about the balance.
Using 'tech' that is now freely available, we can seek to gain direct feedback over the ANS and thereby influence our own responses to stress, and a method of entry into an optimal state. Which is not to be sniffed at in today’s stressed out world!
I shall delve deeper into the world of breathing elsewhere, as this is a key facet of gaining control over this homeostatic state of affairs, including harnessing attention, and a productive, task focused mindset. It also serves to calm the overactive default mode and clear the mind. For now though, it is sufficient to understand that with tools such as the Polar H10, we can quickly gain insight into our current state of sympathovagal balance, and recognise the signs and symptoms of stress-response, as well as relaxation-response. Then we can seek to redress that balance at will.
There are performance implications for turning up and down the SNS and PNS in relation to each other and the environment in which we are operating, especially with respect to cognitive functioning. Again, I will seek to unpack this at a later date, but suffice to say when thoughts are racing through your head, a little Parasympathetic ‘exertion’ can seek to slow the system down, to deactivate elements within the default mode, and regain a sense of composure. Clearing the mind as it were. Conversely, ramping up the SNS to a degree (whilst maintaining a little PNS in the mix) can give sufficient impetus towards attentional focus and motivation when addressing situations that require cognitive resource. This includes the ‘executive processes’ that govern problem-solving and decision-making. Indeed, it is said that there is an ‘optimal balance’ between the two, and that this can be quantified numerically at around 92% SNS and 8% PNS (Chin and Kales, 2019). This seems to engage so-called ‘flow’ and provides the right combination of acceleration and braking to hit that racing line round the bend, and a high level of performance....
With the sorts of cheap devices mentioned to plug ourselves into, we can explore further how to get the most out of our engine (in conjunction with the knowledge of how the system works, combining brain and body functions harmoniously).
The approach I take (and offer) is to understand how different variables affect this capacity to balance competing systems and functions so as to get the most out of performance. That performance may be a productive state of action and task-focus. It may also be a means to gain composure and reduce stress and anxiety influences on one’s state of mind. But equally it is about setting the right conditions to achieve the desired balance. This additionally means looking at the environment in which you are situated, and thinking about how to better design it, adapt it, tailor it to your needs. The ultimate goal is to align ‘you’ harmoniously with ‘it’, and thereby facilitate said balance, motivation, and, of course, optimal performance! Imagine if you could not only understand how to dial up and down your own responses to favourably adapt to your environment, but also had the wherewithal to tweak and shape the environment to facilitate getting the best out of those responses...The possibilities in your favour would shift exponentially!
The key to satisfaction and productivity in life is rooted in the ‘self’: how it is managed, and balanced in accordance with the environment and the body within which it is situated. Take heart (pun unintended) that it can be quantified, modified, and developed...
Let us therefore come together, like The Borg (!), and assimilate the knowledge and technology that is at our disposal. The future (of self) is an inevitable fusion of mind-body, and insight-enabling, wearable tech!!!
Chin, M.S. and Kales, S.N. (2019). Is There an Optimal Autonomic State for Enhanced Flow and Executive Task Performance? Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1716
Strigo I.A., and Craig A.D. (2016). Interoception, homeostatic emotionsand sympathovagal balance.Phil. Trans. R. Soc.B371: 20160010.
By way of further utlity for this line of thinking, Segerstrom and Nes (2018) have identified a correlation between the capacity to exhibit self-control, via regulatory behaviours - such as choosing not to satisfy a behavioural impulse, or deciding to take a healthier option instead of a less healthy one - and heart rate variability. So higher HRV predicts, and associates with, better self-regulation (the experimental example involved eating carrots versus cookies!). The ramifications for this are that if one can become more attuned to techniques and attentional focus that affect Parasympathetic activation, one can potentially increase one's self-control. In fact the benefits of making this psycho-physiological association lead to a conclusion that if one concentrates on addressing one's HRV, by mindful attention, breath control and a commitment to exercise, then cardiac 'fitness' will indeed improve. It's a healthy choice in itself to elect to pursue this strategy! The beauty of making such a 'no-brainer' decision, is that immediately, by this logic, you are affecting your HRV, and the associated Paraysmpathetic variables. Simply nodding along to this proposition as you read it and saying to yourself "yes, that's what I could do with doing" is initiating the process of wresting back control over your autonomic nervous system response to circumstance, a capacity for self-control, and a path to enhanced health, fitness and a more productive and satisfied life! (Make sure to take a nice slow deep breath whilst you read and nod.) So what are you waiting for, go grab a carrot!!!
Segerstrom, S.C. and Nes, L.S. (2018). Heart Rate Variability Reflects Self-Regulatory Strength, Effort, and Fatigue. Psychol Sci,18(3):275-81
The science of cognition and perception in context
This is where I elaborate upon brain science relating to cognitive functioning dependent on environmental context.