Breathing in before a task may make you more likely to succeed at it. The process appears to prime the brain for the activity and helps people to do better on some tests.
Sobel and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel wondered if inhaling can help people perform better in tasks.
To test this, the team hooked around 30 participants up to a device that measured nasal inhalation and exhalation and then showed them a shape or word. The participants had to say if the shape was physically possible or if the word was real or made up.
Participants started each task by pressing a button. They did this within one or two seconds of inhaling on average, although they didn’t realise they did this, as confirmed by the team by asking them afterwards.
When instead of using the button, Sobel and his team controlled the start of the shape task, they found participants scored an average of 73 per cent when inhaling, compared to 68 per cent when exhaling.
“In cognitive brain science we’re often used to looking at minute differences that gain statistical significance over large data sets,” says Sobel. “It’s a real difference in performance.”
However, they did not see a significant difference with the word task and some participants did better when exhaling than the inhaling.
The improvements in the shape task cannot be explained by better oxygen levels in the brain because this does not change unless someone holds their breath for dozens of seconds, says co-author Ofer Perl.
The team also measured electrical activity in the brain during the tasks and found there were shifts associated with increased attention when participants inhaled. “This means your brain processes things differently from inhale to exhale,” says Sobel. The same effect didn’t happen during exhalation.