Breath & Spire: A Few Key Questions

I’ve been waiting to write this post for a long time.  Heck, you could say I did my Ph.D. on this post.

When we started work on Spire, our goal was to give people feedback about something that influenced life as much as – if not more than – fitness: their state of mind. Yes, like other activity trackers, Spire accurately tracks physical activity and fitness. But unlike other trackers, Spire records an additional metric: breathing patterns. This is because your breathing patterns both reflect and influence your state of mind.

And, as it turns out, it’s this additional metric, breathing, that has really caught people’s attention… and curiosity.

Why consider breathing?

How does breathing relate to state of mind?

What’s the science behind this?

Why consider breathing?

Many of us don’t consider how important our breath is. Yet, when you think about it, you probably have some experiential understanding of the role breath plays in your daily life.

Perhaps you’ve felt short of breath. During a math test, or an asthma attack.

Perhaps you’ve noticed how tranquil your breath can be. While out fishing in the early morning, or sitting by a campfire.

Perhaps you’ve felt your chest constricted or find yourself sighing regularly. While writing email, or sitting in traffic.

These are all real experiences that show the diverse repertoire of the breath. Imagine what it’s doing when you’re not paying attention. Imagine if you could notice your breath in these situations, and how this might change your day, your dinner, or your life.

How does breathing relate to state of mind?

When you feel stressed, your body’s ancient defense mechanisms are activated and becomes prepared for “fight or flight” – to run, to attack, or to do something that requires high physical activity. One thing that happens during this response is that your breathing becomes rapid and shallow.

In short doses, this can be useful. But this is email, not a lion attack! Imagine how many times during your day you feel tense or overwhelmed. Then, consider what it does to your breath.

So, what can you do about this? For one, you can transform your perception of stress from ‘threatening’ to ‘challenging’ – challenging you to perform at your best. Simply re-framing stress can change the way your body deals with it, though we don’t understand exactly how that happens or how to do it consistently.

In addition to changing your perception of stress, you can literally control it. But how can you affect your brain like that? Funny you should ask…

Unlike other physiological functions, the breath is under both autonomic and conscious control. This means the breath is not just ‘happening’ in the background – it’s a lever. A way in. The gas pedal and the brakes for your brain and body.

It’s important to know there is no “correct” way to breathe. Just like there’s no “correct” state of mind. Stress isn’t bad! It’s part of life and, let’s be honest, we often enjoy it! To an extent. Chronic stress is a problem because we often don’t even realize it’s happening. That isn’t just sad, it compromises our immune system because the body is so frequently kept vigilant.

What’s the science behind this?

Why do we have the phrase “take a deep breath” in so many languages?  Why have scientists and poets been writing about the breath for thousands of years? Because the slow, calm, breath does three things:

Vagus_nervesFirst, it changes the carbon dioxide level in the bloodstream. This is important because the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions like fear) is very sensitive to carbon dioxide (detected as pH). When you take that deep breath, your blood becomes less acidic, assuring your amygdala that you are, indeed, not at threat of drowning and that all is well.

Second, it lengthens the exhale, lifting the gas pedal on the brain. During exhale, the gates blocking the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve, are lifted. This signifies to the brain that the coast is clear to “rest and digest.”

Finally, consciously taking a breath is the simplest action you can take to bring a wandering, anxious mind to the present moment. This is the key to understanding why concentration techniques start with focus on the breath.

We now see how the breath (1) reflects your state of mind and (2) influences it.

Now Is the Time

There is something even more valuable than our time, our attention. One minute of genuine, focused attention can be worth dozens of minutes of being distracted.

Today, more than ever, a healthy, focused, and balanced state of mind is paramount. It dictates how we work, the decisions we make, and even how we communicate. It helps us achieve goals in a world of distraction. Don’t let your life slip by. Get to know your breath, watch it change, then listen to what it brings up for you.

Stay Tuned for Updates

What would your life look like with less rushing, more space, and more balance? How would it change the way you eat, live, or love?

In future posts, I’ll be diving into the details about our breath and state of mind. Just a sampling of the topics I hope to cover, would be: the four components of each breath and what they tell us; why yoga refers to the breath so much; how breath relates to meditation… and to endurance and athletics, and even to communication and sex.

I look forward to discussing with you. Until next time!

Neema

P.S. The studies underlying the regulation of state of mind by respiration – summarized at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vagal_tone and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvagal_Theory – were spear-headed by Spire’s scientific advisor, Dr. Stephen Porges.

References:
  • Crum, AJ, Salovey, P, Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013 Apr;104(4):716-33.
  • Porges, Stephen W., Doussard-Roosevelt, Jane A., Maiti, Ajit K. (1994). Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion.
  • West, John B. (2008). Respiratory Physiology: The Essentials. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
  • Yasuma F et al. (Feb 2004). “Respiratory sinus arrhythmia: why does the heartbeat synchronize with respiratory rhythm?”. Chest 125 (2): 683–90.
  • Ziemann AE, Allen JE, Dahdaleh NS, Drebot II, Coryell MW, Wunsch AM, Lynch CM, Faraci FM, Howard MA, Welsh MJ, Wemmie JA. (2009). The amygdala is a chemosensor that detects carbon dioxide and acidosis to elicit fear behavior. Cell. 2009 Nov 25; 139(5):1012-21.
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About the Author

Posted by

Neema Moraveji, Ph.D. is co-founder of Spire. He is also currently on leave from Stanford as the founder of the Calming Technology Lab.

Categories:

Body & Mind

1 Comment

Thanks for this interesting article.

When I first read about Spire it said, “Mindfulness & Activity Tracker. You’re Stressed? – It Vibrates.” Yet i haven’t found that cited anywhere in the blurb. Can you tell me more about the alarm that vibrates. Will it vibrate when my breathing rate falls too low?

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