As a neuroscience nerd, I like to pour through research, find new information on how the brain works, and figure out practical ways to use it.

This week’s tip comes from studies done by Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

All these years, we thought we were breathing just to get oxygen into our systems. It turns out that how we breathe affects our emotional judgments and memories.

The Magic of Inhaling

One study asked people to identify pictures of fearful faces versus those who looked surprised. When participants were breathing in (through their noses), they could perform this task faster than when they were breathing out.

Something similar happened when subjects were shown images on a computer and asked to remember these. They had better recall when they saw the images while inhaling than exhaling.

These differences vanished when people were breathing through their mouths.

What’s Going on Here?

The rhythm of your breathing creates electrical activity in your brain, as your neurons fire. When you’re inhaling, there’s a lot more activity in these four areas:

  1. Your olfactory cortex—associated with smell
  2. Your amygdala—associated with identifying fear
  3. Your hippocampus—associated with memory
  4. Your entire limbic system—associated with emotions and decision making

This likely dates back to our early days as a species. When we’re fearful, we breathe faster. That means we inhale more. Then our brains are sharper and better able to identify situations that get us into trouble, remember them, and make better decisions about what to do when we run into them next time.

How Can We Use This?

It’s odd to think our brains are sharper when we’re breathing in—but go with it.

Need to remember something? Maybe it’s an item you must get from another room. Inhale while you’re thinking about it. This may help you avoid walking through that doorway and wondering what it was! (Here’s a 2-minute video with more memory tips.)

Feeling anxious or fearful? Keep breathing through your nose. That old line about taking a deep breath before you plunge in is right. It activates parts of your brain you’ll need to better deal with a stressful situation.

Faced with an important decision? Pay attention to your breathing. Make sure you’re not holding your breath. Fire up that limbic system!

The term “mouth breather” has long been an insult, referring to people who were slack-jawed and looked stupid. Who knew there might be something to this?

Need to look smarter with your communications? Let’s talk.