Breathing and Brain Function: The 2 Types of Breathing

Believe it or not, breathing, brain function, and cognitive performance are closely linked. Breathing affects brain function. To most people, the two would appear entirely unconnected. So, let’s have a look at the science behind how this.

The Two Types of Breathing

As explained by Patrick McKeown in the Oxygen Advantage, there are two main ways you can breathe. These two types of breathing have different functions in the body, and each affects your cognitive state differently.

(A) Mouth and Upper Chest Breathing

Breathing through your mouth and upper chest is typically the body’s emergency response activation mechanism. It activates the body’s fight or flight response, also known as the sympathetic nervous system. Under these conditions, the body diverts blood and resources away from the brain and digestive system to send it to your musculoskeletal system.

In evolutionary terms, this helped us in emergencies, for example, outrunning a predator. This type of breathing is catabolic to the body and only designed for short term use.

During this fight or flight response, when the body has diverted blood away from the brain, we enter a reptile brain-type mode. In this stressed state, our brain is only concerned with one thing, survival. We are in no state to be critically or creatively thinking.

You need to avoid this type of breathing any time you are working, learning, or critically using your mind.

(B) Nasal and Diaphragm Breathing

Breathing through your nose and diaphragm is the body’s resting respiratory mode.

When you breathe this way, the body utilizes the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the relaxation response. During this state, your body allows sufficient blood to your digestive system and, most importantly, your brain. Nasal breathing will enable you to think critically and creatively to your maximum potential. In addition to maximizing cognitive potential, nasal and diaphragm breathing:

  • Dilates blood vessels increasing cardiac function
  • Decreases stress and anxiety
  • Regulates carbon dioxide and oxygen levels in the body
  • Enables efficient digestion
  • Increase attention span

Breathing and Brain Function

So, now we know that breathing affects brain function. Hopefully, you can now be more aware of how you’re currently breathing. If you ever feel anxious or have brain fog, step back a minute and take some deep breaths using your nose and diaphragm.

99% of the time, you should be nose / nasal breathing using your diaphragm.

Struggle Nasal Breathing?

If you’re one of the people who continually has a blocked nose, and struggles to nasal breath, then watch this video by Patrick McKeown on how to unblock your nose and restore nasal breathing.

If you’re looking for more brain optimization tips, why not check out our article on multitasking and how it affects cognitive performance!