Suck it up: Breathing in before performing a task might help you to excel

March 26, 2109

A team of researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, has found that we may do better on tests and at tasks if we inhale through our noses first.

According to findings of a study conducted in the lab of Professor Noam Sobel, head of the Olfaction Research Group in the institute’s Department of Neurobiology, people who inhaled when presented with a visuospatial task achieved better results than those who exhaled in the same situation.

The study findings, which were published in Nature Human Behavior, suggest that the olfactory system may have shaped the evolution of brain function far beyond the basic function of smelling. Indeed, inhalation, in and of itself, might prepare the brain for taking in new information—in essence, synchronizing the two processes.

The researchers designed an experiment in which they could measure the air flow through the nostrils of subjects and, at the same time, present them with test problems to solve. The subjects were asked to press a button—once when they had answered a question; and once, when they were ready for the next question. The researchers noted that, as the subjects went through the problems, they took in air just before pressing the button for the question.

The experiment was designed so the researchers could ensure the subjects were not aware that their inhalations were being monitored, and they ruled out a scenario in which the button pushing, itself, was reason for inhaling, rather than preparation for the task.

Next, the researchers changed the format around, giving subjects only the spatial problems to solve—but half were presented as the test-takers inhaled, half as they exhaled. Inhalation turned out to be significantly tied to successful completion of the test problems.

During the experiment, the researchers measured the subjects’ electric brain activity with an EEG. Here, too, they found differences between inhaling and exhaling—especially in connectivity between different parts of the brain

 “One might think that the brain associates inhaling with oxygenation and thus prepares itself to better focus on test questions, but the time frame does not fit,” says Sobel. “It happens within 200 milliseconds—long before oxygen travels from the lungs to the brain. Our results show that it is not only the olfactory system that is sensitive to inhalation and exhalation; it is the entire brain. We think that we could generalize and say that the brain works better with inhalation.”

The findings could help explain, among other things, why the world seems fuzzy when our noses are stuffed. Sobel points out that the very word “inspiration” means both to breathe in and to move the intellect or emotions.

And those who practice meditation know that the breath is key to controlling emotions and thoughts. This, though, is important empirical support for these intuitions, and it shows that our sense of smell, in some way, most likely provided the prototype for the evolution of the rest of our brain.

The scientists think their findings may, among other things, lead to research into methods to help children and adults with attention and learning disorders improve their skills through controlled nasal breathing.

Research contact: noam.sobel@weizmann.ac.il

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