While Snow White or any of the seven dwarves could tell you it’s best to whistle while you work before you start a task, it may be better to breathe in. According to a recent study, getting a good, deep breath ahead of a task might make you better at it. As with every science-based bit of productivity advice, though, there are further specifics about when and how to use this technique. How does it work best? Get a good lungful of air and then consider these findings:
How Inhaling Aids In Efficiency
This idea of breathing for enhanced brain power came from research conducted on 30 people at the Weizman Institute of Science in Israel. Sort of like those stress tests where you’re hooked to an EKG machine while you walk a treadmill, the scientists hooked their subjects to a machine that measures both breathing levels through nasal passages and brain activity. The subjects were then put through their paces, wrangling with the answers to different types of questions while breathing in a certain fashion. The machine detected when participants spontaneously inhaled at the beginning of a cognitive task. The main takeaway: In certain situations, breathing in shifts the network architecture of the brain, making it perform differently when inhaling than when exhaling.
The results were not dramatic, but there was enough of an increase in mental power to warrant inhaling ahead of taking on a task. People in the test who inhaled before starting the cognitive task were correct almost five percent more often (73 percent success rate versus 68 percent) than those who exhaled at the same point. While five percent might not sound like much, in cognitive brain science, even a minute difference can make a real difference in performance, according to the study’s authors.
The researchers were careful to exclude any efficiency improvements that would result from better oxygen levels in the brain. That benefit only comes after dozens of seconds of a person holding their breath, which was not part of the prep for any of the study participants.
The Technique Works With Shapes But Not Scrabble
As part of the research published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, study participants looked at a shape on a screen and answered the question: Is this shape physically possible? When participants inhaled while considering and then answering questions involving shapes, they gained that fivepercent increase in efficiency as indicated by the machine measuring electrical activity in their brains. But when the researchers switched up the questions to involve words instead of shapes, all the extra efficiency from inhaling ahead of time was lost.
Electrical activity in the brain doesn’t accelerate if a person inhales while answering, “Is this word made up?” (So no gains to be had by breathing in ahead of a challenge from your Scrabble opponent.) The scientists were unsure why the brain-breathing efficiency didn’t work the same for word and shape questions.
It Helps To Know You’re At The Starting Block
There was another ripple in the findings, too. According to the research, inhaling focuses the brain more sharply by increasing a person’s awareness of what’s about to happen next. (Think of an NBA player drawing a deep breath right before releasing the ball for a foul shot.) This study involved two groups of subjects. The first participants were able to push a button indicating they were ready to view another question. A second group did not get to access the button and they did not score higher on the tasks even if the machine recorded that they were inhaling right before they began. So it’s not enough to inhale before you start, you’ve got to know you’re about to begin, too.