Neuroscientists Explain How Deep Breathing May Calm the Mind

Yoga and meditation practitioners claim that breathing can calm the mind. Skeptics may think this is all in their heads. Well, it is. In the brainstem, to be precise.

Researchers have found a subgroup of about 175 neurons in the brainstem of mice that seem to monitor breathing rhythms and influence how calm or aroused the animal is, according to the study published today in Science.

These neurons are found in the breathing control center in the brainstem, surrounded by several thousand neurons that generate the breathing rhythm used by respiratory muscles.

The newly identified neurons, however, are not involved in generating breathing rhythms. Mice that lack these neurons are still able to breathe, but become exceptionally calm. When put in a new environment with a lot of exciting odors that normally incite the animals to explore, these mice take a laid-back approach and spend most of their time sitting and grooming.

The finding reveals one way that neurons behind a basic autonomous function such as breathing can communicate with areas governing higher-order mental states. It could explain why yogis and meditators can use slow, controlled breathing to achieve tranquil states, and why people in stressful situations or during panic attacks may benefit from taking deep breaths.

In other words, just like your mental state influences how you breathe, your breathing rhythm can also influence how you feel.

“We think this is a two-way connection,” Kevin Yackle, a researcher now at UC-San Francisco and the study’s co-author, tells mental_floss. “These neurons are monitoring the breathing activity and then relaying it back to the rest of the brain to indicate what the animal is doing. This breathing signal then influences the brain state of the animal.”

A SERENDIPITOUS FINDING

This was an unexpected finding for the researchers, Yackle says.

The study’s goal was to paint a more accurate picture of how each type of neuron contributes to breathing. Understanding the details of this machinery can have important medical implications, Yackle says. In cardiology, for example, our detailed understanding of how the cardiac rhythm is generated has led to the development of medications that can control heart muscle contractions. “But when you think about breathing, we don't have any ways for pharmacologically controlling it,” Yackle says. Such a pharmacological approach could help preterm infants, for example, whose neural circuits for breathing are not fully developed, leaving them in need of mechanical ventilation.

The team started out by looking at a cluster of neurons called the preBötzinger Complex, which controls breathing rhythms. It was discovered in 1991 by Jack Feldman, a professor of neurobiology at UCLA and the co-author of the current study. (The same team recently revealed the biological importance of sighing.) The goal was to identify the different subsets of neurons within this cluster and find what each type of neuron does to contribute to breathing.

The researchers landed on a small group of 175 neurons with a particular genetic profile that suggested a crucial role in generating the breathing rhythm. But killing these cells in the brainstem of mice proved that their guess was wrong. The mice continued to breathe normally.

“I was really disappointed,” Yackle recalls. “But we had put so much effort in the project by that point that I just continued looking at it, trying to find what was happening.”

However, Yackle soon noticed one subtle difference: The mice were breathing more slowly.

An illustration of the pathway (green) that directly connects breathing center to arousal center and rest of the brain. Image Credit: Kevin Yackle, Lindsay A. Shwarz, Kaewen Kam, Jordan M. Sorokin, John R. Huguenard, Jack L. Feldman Liqun Luo, and Mark Krasnow

 

A CLOSED LOOP

One way to explain a shift like that was to imagine that the breathing pattern was influenced by the mental state of the animals. The researchers found more evidence for this idea.

Usually, mice explore a new cage by sniffing all throughout it. If the idea about a connection between breathing and the rest of the brain is true, then these bursts of short deep breaths could reinforce the alert state of the exploring animals, creating a feedback loop. But if a key component in this chain is missing, the loop is broken. When the researchers tested this theory, as expected, the mice that lacked the subgroup of neurons appeared less aroused than their unaffected cagemates when put in stimulating environments. The animals’ brain waves patterns, measured by EEG, also suggested a calm mental state.

Tracing the neurons revealed that they connect to another part of the brainstem, locus coeruleus, which is known for its role in physiological responses to stress, as well as alertness and attention.

“We think that these neurons in the breathing center are relaying the breathing signal to the locus coeruleus, and by doing this they are basically sending a signal throughout many parts of the brain that then can cause change in arousal,” Yackle says.

The authors note that panic attacks triggered by respiratory symptoms are responsive to clonidine, a drug that "silences" the locus coeruleus. Deep breathing could play a similar role, quelling the arousal signals coming from this subgroup of respiratory neurons to the locus coeruleus.

"Although breathing is generally thought of as an autonomic behavior, higher-order brain functions can exert exquisite control over breathing," they write. "Our results show, conversely, that the breathing center has a direct and powerful influence on higher-order brain function."

It would be challenging to test this directly in humans. But indirect evidence from other studies suggests that breathing can influence brain states.

For example, sleep researchers have shown that in sleeping people, a change in breathing pattern sometimes precedes periods of brain activity that resemble an alert or wakeful state.

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How Much Smartphone Use Is Too Much?
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Since the iPhone debuted in 2007, ushering in the age of the phone-as-computer, smartphone use has exploded worldwide, with an estimated 2.3 billion users last year. According to a 2016 Pew Research survey, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, and other recent stats have found that users are on their phones an average of more than five hours per day—almost double the rate in 2013. More people now use a mobile device to get online than they do a computer. This is especially true in regions where people may not be able to afford a personal computer but can buy a smartphone.

We love our smartphones perhaps a little too much, and the desire to unplug is growing among people who see 24/7 connectedness as damaging to their mental health. This week, Apple announced new iPhone features meant to curb our dependence on our devices, including a weekly "Report" app that shows your phone and app usage, as well as how many times you physically pick up your phone. (One small study by the consumer research firm Dscout found that we touch our phones more than 2600 times a day.) You can also set customized limits for overall phone usage with the "Screen Time" app.

Many of us feel anxiety at the very thought of being without their phone and the access it offers to the internet. Researchers have a term for it: nomophobia ("no mobile phone phobia"). So how much smartphone use is too much?

That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. "Smartphone addiction" isn't an official medical diagnosis. Even the experts haven't decided how much is too much—or even whether smartphone addiction is real.

DEFINING ADDICTION

To understand what's going on, we have to first step back and define what addiction is. It's different from habits, which are subconsciously performed routines, and dependence, when repeated use of something causes withdrawals when you stop. You can be dependent on something without it ruining your life. Addiction is a mental disorder characterized by compulsive consumption despite serious adverse consequences.

Yet, our understanding of behavioral addictions—especially ones that don't involve ingesting mind-altering chemicals—is still evolving. Actions that result in psychological rewards, such as a crushing a castle in Clash Royale or getting a new ping from Instagram, can turn compulsive as our brains rewire to seek that payoff (just like our smartphones, our brains use electricity to operate, and circuits of neurons can restructure to skew toward rewards). For a minority of people, it seems those compulsions can turn to addictions.

Psychologists have been treating internet addiction for almost as long as the internet has been around: Kimberly Young, a clinical psychologist and program director at St. Bonaventure University, founded the Center for Internet Addiction back in 1995. By 2013, addictive behavior connected to personal technology was common enough that in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the bible for mental disorder diagnoses, the American Psychiatric Association included "internet gaming disorder" as a condition "warranting further study." These days, thanks to an abundance of horror stories involving people who were glued to the internet until they died—and living gamers who are so engrossed in their games that they ignore paramedics removing dead gamers—internet rehabs are popping up all over the world.

But in virtually all of the medical literature published so far about internet addiction—including the WHO's forthcoming 11th edition of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), whose "excessive use of the internet" is built around how much gaming interferes with daily life—there's no mention of smartphones.

According to Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, there's a reason for these omissions: Despite the official definitions included in the DSM-V and ICD-11, "there's debate regarding the use of those terms [internet addiction]. Both the ICD-11 group and the DSM-V group chose to focus on the behavior rather than the delivery device."

So while you may feel nomophobia when you can't find your internet "delivery device," the global psychiatric community thinks it's the internet itself that's the problem—not the phone in your hand.

THE REWARDS THAT COME FROM OUR PHONES

We are getting something from our phones, though, and it's not just access to the internet. Receiving a notification gives us a small dopamine burst, and we learn to associate that dose of pleasure with the smartphone. You may pull your phone from your pocket a dozen times an hour to check for notifications—even if you know they're not there because your phone would have, well, notified you.

It's not unusual for people to become attached to an action (checking the phone) rather than its reward (getting a notification). Sometimes smokers trying to quit feel the urge to chew or bite and need to replace cigarettes with gum or sunflower seeds. According to Stephanie Borgland, a neuroscientist and associate professor at University of Calgary, this is called a Pavlovian-instrumental transfer—a reference to Ivan Pavlov's experiments, in which he reinforced behavior in dogs through signals and rewards. Borgland tells Mental Floss that we can become compulsively attached to the cues of phone use. We cling to the physical stimuli our brains have linked to the reward.

There may be an evolutionary basis to this behavior. Like other primates, humans are social mammals, but we have dramatically higher levels of dopamine than our cousins. This neurotransmitter is associated with reward-motivated behavior. So when we get a notification on an app that tells us someone has engaged us in social interaction—which we naturally crave—it triggers our natural inclinations.

HOW TO CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (FOR YOUR PHONE)

The global psychiatric community may not be convinced our smartphones are a problem, and no one has died from checking Snapchat too often—or at least it hasn't been reported. But most of us would say that spending five hours a day on our smartphones is too much. So are there any guidelines?

At this stage of research into smartphone use, there are no specific time-limit recommendations, though some researchers are working on a smartphone addiction scale; one was proposed in a 2013 study in the journal PLOS One. Based on what's said to be coming out in the ICD-11, here's one simple guideline: Problematic smartphone use negatively interferes with your life. Some research suggests Facebook, Instagram, and even online gaming make us feel more isolated and less connected. The more we try to fill that hole by tapping away at our phones, the more we crave social interaction. "There are a number of factors that have been associated with these behaviors or conditions," says Potenza, who is developing tools to screen for and assess problematic internet use and has consulted with the WHO on these issues. "And arguably one of the most consistent ones is depression."

One way to assess whether your smartphone is a problem is noting how you react when you're cut off from it, according to the PLOS One study. The study proposed a "smartphone addiction scale" based on negative responses to being without a smartphone, among other criteria. What happens on a day when you accidentally leave it at home? Are you irritable or anxious? Do you feel isolated from friends or unsafe? Do you have trouble concentrating on work, school, or other important responsibilities, whether or not you have your phone?

While smartphones may not be truly addictive in a medical sense, learning how to use them in a more mindful, healthy manner couldn't hurt. Test yourself for nomophobia [PDF]—knowing how much time you spend online is the first step to identifying how that can be problematic. Block distracting sites or track usage via a timer or an app (beware third-party apps' privacy settings, however). Delete the apps that keep the phone in your hand even when you're not online, like games. If you're still struggling, you could ditch smartphones altogether and downgrade to a "dumb" phone or get a Light Phone, a cellular device "designed to be used as little as possible."

A recent WIRED feature argued that using the internet five hours per day isn't a personal failing so much as a reflection of the way many apps are purposely designed to keep you salivating for more. So perhaps the best measure is to leave your phone behind once in a while. Schedule a screen-free Sunday. Go for a walk in the woods. Meditate. Socialize instead of binging The Office again. Don’t worry—you’ll be fine.

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11 Fascinating Facts About Sigmund Freud
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Next to sheep, no one has done more for dreams than Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). While you may know him as the founder of psychoanalysis, you may not know as much about his work with therapy dogs, his Hollywood courtship, or his love affair with cocaine.

1. HE HAD A RARE BIRTH ANOMALY.

The first of eight children born to Jacob and Amalia Freud, newborn Sigmund arrived in 1856 with a curious aberration: A membrane known as a caul covered his head and face. Cauls are very unusual events, but harmlessly removed by attending physicians or midwives. Far from distressed, Amalia was overjoyed at the sight. She believed the folklore that says cauls herald the birth of a child destined for great accomplishments.

2. HE EXAMINED FROG BRAINS.

Freud’s early education and work was focused on neurology. After studying the sexual organs of the eel via dissection, he moved to comparing the brains of vertebrates and invertebrates. For six years, Freud dissected the brains of frogs, crayfish, and lampreys, describing the medulla oblongata and other then-oblique components of the brain and nervous system. He also made important contributions toward the discovery of the neuron.

3. HE EXPERIMENTED WITH HYPNOSIS.

After graduating from the University of Vienna, Freud began working at Vienna General Hospital and collaborating with fellow physician Josef Breuer. Breuer was an advocate of treating patients via hypnosis, which intrigued Freud. One of Breuer’s patients, known as “Anna O.,” seemed to recall unpleasant memories only when under the influence of hypnotic suggestion. Freud traveled to Paris to learn more from other physicians using hypnosis, but when he returned to Vienna in 1886 and opened his own practice, he began to step away from hypnosis—patients simply relaxing on his couch seemed to produce a similar recall effect.

4. HIS ETHICS COULD BE A LITTLE SHAKY.

Over time, Freud’s influence on psychiatry has been both celebrated and minimized. His critics argue that Freud was sometimes prone to manipulative behavior directed at his patients, as in the case of Horace Frink, an American psychoanalyst who submitted to Freud’s probing in 1921. Under Freud’s guidance, Frink divorced his wife and married Angelika Bijur—one of Frink's patients. This Match Game brand of psychiatry drew criticism after correspondence revealing Freud’s involvement in the pair was unearthed by Frink’s daughter in the 1970s.

5. HE HATED THE U.S.

Though Freud was feted in the United States for his provocative psychoanalytical theories, he disliked everything but the compliments. Traveling to America by steamship in 1909 with Carl Jung, Freud recoiled at the manners of his American hosts (who used his first name) and felt the culture as a whole was too preoccupied with money. Such was his dislike for the country that when the Nazis took over Vienna in 1938, Freud initially stuck around rather than accept a relative’s invitation to come seek shelter in Manhattan. (However, he willingly fled to London after Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-granddaughter, intervened.)

6. HOLLYWOOD WANTED HIS HELP.

Following the publication of several books on his theories, including 1899’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s notoriety grew exponentially. In 1925, MGM head Samuel Goldwyn declared him the “greatest love specialist in the world” and asked him to consult on scripts for several love stories from history, including Antony and Cleopatra. Freud had no interest in that film or any other. He did, however, once make time for an informal examination of actor Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, Freud wrote in 1931, was Chaplin channeling his own self “as he was in his early dismal youth.”

7. HE LIKED HIS COCAINE.

Before being stigmatized as a dangerous and addictive stimulant, cocaine was enjoyed at the turn of the century as a safe and practical way to stimulate activity. Freud found relief from bouts of sadness while on the drug and also appreciated its ability to provoke extended monologues about things normally tucked away in the recesses of his brain. He wrote four papers celebrating the drug’s effects and even used it on some of his patients. He quit the drug later in life, calling it a distraction.

8. HE HAD THERAPY DOGS.

Freud was using animal companions to soothe anxious patients long before it was common. He sometimes allowed his Chow-Chow, Jofi, to sit in with his patients during appointments and noticed that they became measurably more relaxed. When the idea of therapy dogs was explored further in the 1960s, researchers drew support from Freud’s writing about Jofi to help establish credibility for the approach.

9. HE HELPED SELL COUCHES.

Freud’s preference for patients to splay out on a couch, staring at the ceiling to help clear their mindS for revelatory thinking, became a standard of psychoanalytic practice. In the 1940s, the Imperial Leather Furniture Company of Queens manufactured couches that were specifically for the psychoanalytical field, lacking buttons or cushions that might distract nervous patients.

10. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR A NOBEL PRIZE 13 TIMES.

Between 1915 and 1938, Freud was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine 12 times and the Nobel in Literature once—yet was never awarded any of them. His critics charged that psychoanalysis was an unproven practice. Asked to endorse him for a prize, Albert Einstein begged off, citing uncertainty about Freud’s conclusions. Freud did receive the Goethe prize (given by the city of Frankfurt, Germany, in honor of the poet Goethe) in 1930: His daughter, Anna, traveled to Frankfurt, Germany to accept on his behalf, since Freud was ill with cancer.

11. THIEVES ONCE TRIED TO STEAL HIS ASHES.

Freud died by suicide in 1939, after a long and painful struggle with epithelioma. In 2014, his cremated ashes—housed in a 2300-year-old Greek urn given to him by Princess Marie Bonaparte—were nearly snatched by thieves at Golders Green Crematorium in London. The urn, which also contained the remains of his wife Martha, was damaged in the attempted theft. Crematorium employees then moved the urn from public display to a more secure location; it's unclear if the culprits were ever apprehended.

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