“Perfect Breathing”: Parallel Tracks

7A539D2B-E756-46AC-A69B-0A24602B21FC Image credits: Corey Rich
Another interesting aspect of our brains is the interplay between our emotions and thoughts or tasks that require our attention or concentration.



Researchers at Duke University discovered that the path that “attentional” thoughts (i.e., threading a needle) take through the brain is different than the path that emotional responses take, although both streams have a common destination: the prefrontal cortex.



This area of the brain is responsible for moderating conflicting thoughts and emotions and determining the correct behavior or course of action.



Interestingly the Duke researchers determined that there is an inverse relationship between the attentional and emotional path.



When the emotional path is active and emphasized, the attentional path is deemphasized and dampened, and vice versa.



This may possibly explain why people under the spell of surging emotions behave irrationally and oftentimes in ways that are clearly not in their best interest or aligned with their beliefs, ethics, or goals—hence the phrase crime of passion.



However, we can manipulate this inverse relationship to our advantage.



When we notice the level of emotions rising we can immediately divert our focus to an attentional task that will dampen our emotions without ignoring, neglecting, or burying them—that is the breath.



As we have noted several times by now, the breath has the unequaled ability to bring us into the moment, keenly aware of our thoughts, emotions, and body.



By focusing our attention on the breath and activating the attentional pathway in our brain, it allows us to witness our emotions and gives us time to analyze where acting out our emotions will take us and whether we want to go there.



It allows us to, as Karen Stone-McGown so aptly put it, to “choose our lives.” Dr. Ekman agrees that we can learn to take control over our emotions by learning to take control over our breath.



“We breathe without thinking, without conscious direction of each inhalation and exhalation.



Nature does not require that we divert our attention to breathing.



When we try paying attention to each breath, people find it very hard to do so for more than a minute, if that, without being distracted by thoughts.


Learning to focus our attention on breathing takes daily practice, in which we develop new neural pathways that allow us to do it.”



Ekman maintains that in addition, there is something else of great value that comes from learning how to exercise conscious control over our breath, and that is that this skill is transferable to other automatic processes “benefiting emotional behavior awareness and eventually, in some people, impulse awareness.”



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