Breathing Is More Than Life: It's Memory, And Decisions

Stop breathing, and we… stop. Keep breathing, and we keep going. However, our breath may be key to more than just existing: new research is showing how the way we breathe is key to how quickly we make emotional judgements, and how we remember.

The rhythm of our breathing creates electrical activity in our brain. And this enhances our emotional judgements, and our memory recall.  Scientists at Northwestern University have found that whether we inhale or exhale, and breathe through our nose or mouth, is critical to the effect on our behaviour.

Breathing in through the nose improves memory recall. In the study, people were more likely to remember objects if they were inhaling through the nose when they first were presented with it.

Christina Zelano, assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine:

“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. When you breathe in, we discovered you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all across the limbic system.”

In an experiment, people were shown images of faces showing surprise, or fear, and were asked to choose which emotion the faces displayed. When they encountered the images on an inhalation, the decision was made faster than on an exhalation, showing that breathing in through the nose speeds emotional processing. The effect was lost when breathing through the mouth.

The implications for us become clear: to turn on your brain, turn on your nose.

In through the nose, out through the mouth – a practice widely used in all sorts of mindfulness techniques – yoga, pilates… and now there is research to back up the benefits. It may not be easy to strike a Tree during a business meeting when tough decisions need to be made – but it is the easiest thing in the world to breathe. Through your nose.

“When you inhale, you are in a sense synchronizing brain oscillations across the limbic network,” Zelano

And the same goes for remembering important things – saying someone’s name three times when you meet them at a networking event may feel forced and sound a bit odd. But breathing in through your nose when they introduce themselves, and then repeating their name back to them (Great to meet you Harry!) is natural, and simple.


  • Original article:
  • Original Research: Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function, Christina ZelanoHeidi JiangGuangyu ZhouNikita AroraStephan SchueleJoshua Rosenow and Jay A. Gottfried. 

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