Confirming what yogis have claimed for long, new research has found that meditation and breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, can work like fertiliser for the brain, strengthening our ability to focus on tasks.
"Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centred practices and a steadiness of mind," said principal investigator of the study Ian Robertson from Trinity College Dublin.
The findings, published in the journal Psychophysiology, explained the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.
The research showed that breathing -- a key element of meditation and mindfulness practices -- directly affects the levels of a natural chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline.
This chemical messenger is released when we are challenged, curious, exercised, focused or emotionally aroused and, if produced at the right levels, helps the brain grow new connections, like a brain fertiliser.
The way we breathe, in other words, directly affects the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.
The study found that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronisation between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus.
The authors believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilise attention and boost brain health.
"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," said lead author Michael Melnychuk from Trinity College Dublin.
"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," Melnychuk added.
The researchers believe that the findings could have particular implications for research into brain ageing.
"Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More 'youthful' brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks," Robertson said.
"Our research offers one possible reason for this - using our breath to control one of the brain's natural chemical messengers, noradrenaline, which in the right 'dose' helps the brain grow new connections between cells," he added.