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Research: Breathing exercises and meditation really do sharpen the mind

For the first time, researchers at Trinity College Dublin show a neurophysiological link between breathing patterns and attention.

For years studies have linked yogic breathing practices and breath-focused meditation to everything from increased relaxation, positive emotion, greater focus, heightened attention and decreased stress to less mind wandering. To date, we’ve yet to understand why this occurs.

In a groundbreaking study, researchers at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and Global Brain Health in Dublin, Ireland have directly linked breathing patterns to noradrenaline levels in the brain.

Noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, is the primary neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) in the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for activating the mind, body and brain in response to a challenge.

Noradrenaline is released when we are focused, aroused, curious or threatened. Produced in the locus coeruleus, an area of the brain linked to both attention and respiration, noradrenaline stimulates the brain to develop new connections.

The right amount of this chemical can enhance neuroplasticity, and help us to maintain a sharp, healthy brain. Too much stress produces an excessive amount, which can lead to difficulties paying attention.

In the study, researchers measured respiration, pupil dilation, and blood oxygen level dependency activation in 14 participants during 8 minutes of rest, and a 20-minute mental task that required a great deal of focused attention. They discovered that individuals who remained focused and performed better on the task also had greater synchronization between their breathing patterns and their attention.

This information led the authors to conclude that the locus coeruleus plays a key role in linking breathing and attention. As such breath-centered practices may help increase a person’s ability to stay focused.

Previous studies have shown that people tend to breathe more slowly during breath-focused practice in addition to experiencing less mind wandering.

Findings from this new study increase our understanding of the impact of breathing exercises and meditation on brain function and mental activity, paving the way for more research examining how practices like these may not only enhance brain function, but also prevent age-related cognitive decline.


Melnychuk MC, Dockree PM, O'Connell RG, Murphy PR, Balsters JH & Robertson IH (2018). Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama. Psychophysiology e13091 DOI: 10.1111/psyp.13091


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