Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

The Mind at Work: James Nestor on breathing as the brain’s killer app

By

Published on October 23, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

What’s stressing you out at work? The pressure? The pandemic? The pinging apps? Could it also be the way you breathe?

Filed under

Although we’re mostly unaware of it, we breathe in and out about 25,000 times a day. And many of us are doing it wrong. This is the conclusion journalist James Nestor came to after talking to breathing experts and enthusiasts around the world—and he was doing it wrong, too.

“There are as many ways to breathe as there are foods to eat,” a female freediving instructor told Nestor. “And each way we breathe will affect our bodies in different ways.” He was inclined to believe her knowing that she could hold her breath for more than eight minutes and dive unaided below 300 feet.

Nestor recently published Breath, The New Science of a Lost Art, a deep plunge into the world of “pulmonauts,” his term for people, like freedivers, who explore the bounds of human lung capacity and the health benefits of breath control.

Inhale

Breathing, Nestor discovered, isn’t just a biological function that we depend on to survive. It’s also a very useful tool for healing the body and focusing the mind. “It’s a technology,” he writes, “our own species has been perfecting with only our lips, noses, and lungs for hundreds of thousands of years.” And it’s a technology that is increasingly relevant to our overstimulated digital lives, both at home and at work.

We inhale to bring oxygen into the body to fuel our movements and feed our brains. When we’re in danger, we breathe faster, which sets off a whole chain of chemical processes that enable us to fight or take flight. Our heart rate naturally increases with each inhale and decreases with each exhale. When our breathing rate increases, the heart pumps faster to deliver the extra oxygen. The body also produces more cortisol, the stress hormone that both increases glucose in our bloodstreams (which combines with oxygen for quick bursts of energy) while also inhibiting dopamine and serotonin, the counterbalancing hormones that promote feelings of calm and well-being.

The direction of causality here is important. Breathing is both an automatic function and a voluntary one. Humans discovered long ago, first intuitively and then systematically, that they could hack their bodies with their breath. “We can't control our kidney function, or our liver function, or our stomachs,” says Nestor, “but by controlling our breathing, we can influence all those functions.” Breathing affects how we feel, but we can also use it to change how we feel.

Increased oxygen causes the blood vessels to contract. Consuming that oxygen causes them to dilate, as CO₂ levels rise. This play of vascular pressure feeds back to the heart, which makes minute adjustments to its rhythms to make sure, moment by moment, the body is getting the oxygen it needs. When this is operating properly we have good heart rate variability, an important measure of physical fitness.

“The people who are healthiest are the ones who can immediately turn on their stress—and quickly turn it off.” —James Nestor

“That’s really how we’re programmed,” says Nestor. “To be on, and to be able to turn on very quickly. But most importantly, you want to be able to turn off. The people who are healthiest are the ones who can immediately turn on their stress—and quickly turn it off.” Unfortunately, most of us are not in such great shape. “Once we feel anxiety,” he continues, “it can take more than an hour for us to come back down to our normal resting level.” 

For 21st century digitally augmented humans, that life preserving jolt of cortisol has turned into something else. “Everything has become a perceived threat. Looking at the news 20 times a day,” says Nestor, “it’s this constant drip of stress into our lives, which is extremely injurious to our health.” 

Exhale

Just as our inhale amps us up, our exhale calms us back down. We can use this simple fact to great effect. When your inhale is longer than your exhale, your heart speeds up; when your exhale is longer, it slows down. “If you’re stressed out at work,” Nestor explains, “the easiest thing you can do with breathing is to exhale more than you're inhaling.”

Many of the experts Nestor consulted believe that most people inhale too much. In our anxiety and distraction, with bad posture and laptops propped on kitchen tables, we gasp for air as if we were drowning.

“The trigger for breathing,” Nestor says, “is not oxygen, it's CO₂. When CO₂ goes up, we feel we need to breathe.” So, paradoxically, although it’s the inhale that we’re most aware of, it’s the exhale that gives us the most control. 

Many breathing practices use physical or mental devices to help us balance our inhales with our exhales. For instance, in yoga, many of the asanas are practiced with an inhale on the rising movement followed by an exhale for the lowering one. Your body understands the symmetry of the movements and transfers that balance to the breath.

Knowledge work, though mentally taxing, doesn’t engage the body in such a direct way, so there’s generally no reason to let your stress-inducing inhalations dominate your relaxation-oriented exhalations. There are exceptions, like getting yourself psyched up for a presentation, but mostly we need to work on calming ourselves down.

“You get more oxygen by breathing slower… breathing slowly when you’re working on stuff will help you focus.” —James Nestor

The simplest and most effective way to do this is to consciously slow your rate of breathing. Remember, CO₂ is not your enemy. It actually helps your body, and particularly your brain, utilize oxygen more effectively by opening the blood vessels. By studying high-performing athletes like mountain climbers and freedivers Nestor discovered the power of slow breathing. “You get more oxygen by breathing slower,” he says. “This so contradictory, it take took me a long time to really figure out, but breathing slowly when you’re working on stuff will help you focus.”

The perfect breath

Many of the world’s spiritual traditions have practices that train the mind to both slow respiration and even it out. Instead of thinking about breath in binary terms, in or out, these practices encourage a view of breathing as a continuous gesture—the inhale flowing into the exhale, and so on. 

One concise description of the yogic practice of pranayama suggests conceiving of your breath as an upright ellipsis: “The actual pattern of breathing is elliptical rather than circular. That means there is more time spent during the inhalation and exhalation phases than during the transitions between the two.”

diagram of inhalation and exhalation

This ideal breath, to riff on Madonna, is just like a prayer. Nestor points to a 2001 Italian study that concluded, “We serendipitously discovered that reciting the Ave Maria prayer and yoga mantras enhances and synchronizes inherent cardiovascular rhythms because it slows respiration to almost exactly six respirations per minute, which is essentially the same timing as that of endogenous circulatory rhythms.”

This rhythm is no longer a secret. Type “breathing exercise” into Google, and a cute little breathing app will pop up to give you a minute of calm. Nestor doesn’t work for Google, but he cites the app in his epilogue because it encapsulates a principle he discovered through his research: “The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air.”

“Breathing, it’s so easy, you don't need to buy a bunch of equipment to do it, you can just train yourself to breathe in a healthier way.” —James Nestor

Nestor, in his current pandemic mode, is a bearded, long-haired Californian surfer, but he’s no mystic. “The more people become aware of how disordered their breathing is throughout the day, the more they can fix it,” he explains pragmatically. “Breathing, it’s so easy, you don’t need to buy a bunch of equipment to do it, you can just train yourself to breathe in a healthier way.” Nestor’s book offers an exhaustive appendix of breathing methods he has personally researched and referenced, and his website features a collection of a dozen instructional videos by Harvard doctors, yogis, and other practitioners around the world. 

There are, indeed, a dizzying number of techniques to try. Conveniently, many of the most popular methods are available through free apps for your phone or computer, which make it very easy to work these exercises into your day. Nestor has a favorite app he’s been using for a long time even though the UX isn’t great. “I place it right on my desk and it has this very light tone with very slight hints when you should be inhaling and when you should be exhaling. Simply breathing this way is going to cause this physiological change in your body,” he says, “and really allow you to focus more. Whenever I have a really intense writing task, that’s exactly what I do.”

Don’t forget to breathe

There are many everyday situations in which holding your breath is very detrimental to your health and well being. Apnea is the medical term for the temporary cessation of breath, and sleep apnea is a major cause of high blood pressure and other heart ailments, as well as diabetes and depression. 

More directly relevant to our working lives is what writer Linda Stone calls email apnea, “a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email.” Both Stone and Nestor consulted with Dr. Margaret Chesney of UCSF, who’s been researching stress for forty years. Chesney demonstrated in a paper from 2002 the connection between perceived stress and diminished resting breathing rate, resulting from breath holding, and showed the effect is stronger in women than in men.

Stone related this interruption of breathing to a phenomenon that digitally-mediated work has made familiar to many of us, what she calls continuous partial attention. Simple multitasking involves sharing our attention between an undemanding background task and a more demanding foreground task, like eating lunch at your desk while replying to email. With continuous partial attention we’re constantly switching between many cognitively demanding activities: The now daily experience of being on a Zoom call while simultaneously monitoring a Slack channel and our email inboxes.

“A large percentage of the population now, they’re half awake when they're trying to sleep and they’re half asleep when they’re trying to be awake and work.” —James Nestor

“A large percentage of the population now, they’re half awake when they're trying to sleep and they’re half asleep when they’re trying to be awake and work,” says Nestor. “We’ve gotten so accustomed to this constant low-grade stress.”

Reduced heart rate variability may be one of the underlying causes of sustained distractibility at work and may explain the connection between fitness and focus. A 2019 meta-analysis of relevant research concluded that “slow breathing techniques enhance autonomic, cerebral and psychological flexibility,” including increased heart rate variability. A 2016 University of Wisconsin-Madison study showed that short term awareness of breath reduced “the negative attentional effects associated with heavy media multitasking.” As is often the case, we can enlist one technology to help us manage another.

Hold your breath, but on purpose

Holding your breath, of course, is not all bad. Many advanced breathing techniques do involve breath holding, but in a controlled and intentional way. What these techniques have in common with other forms of fitness training, Nestor says, is “acclimating your body to have a higher threshold of CO₂.”

Because CO₂ is what triggers the impulse to take the next breath, building your tolerance for it enables you to decrease your respiration rate, and with it your resting heart rate. Talking about mountain climbers, Nestor says, “they train to breathe extremely slowly to tolerate more CO₂. And these people can summit high peaks without oxygen because breathing so much slower is so much more efficient.”

Nestor’s interest in breathing was a direct outgrowth of his previous book, Deep, that followed “clans of extreme athletes, adventurers, and scientists as they plumb the limits of the ocean's depths.” He had been sent on assignment for Outside magazine to cover a freediving competition in Greece. “After hanging out with these people for months and months, and seeing how they had trained their bodies to hold their breath for five, six, seven, eight minutes at a time, and dive to these incredible depths,” he says. “I thought if I was going to write about this stuff, I had to experience it myself.”  

And so he did. “The first thing I learned from freedivers is do not pay attention to the watch. Do not pay attention to your depth. Every day your body changes,” he recounts. “You stay underwater as long as you feel comfortable. When you want to breathe, you come back up. It is never a competition.” He makes an important point that’s relevant to our relationship to technology of all kinds, “The point of freediving is to listen to yourself, not to listen to your devices.”

What got him hooked was not the competition and camaraderie of the divers, but the sense of peace and complete absorption they were able to experience in the ocean. He put his training to good use two years after that initial assignment, when he was invited to join a group of freedivers filming a 3-D documentary about sperm whales. “Once you dive with a whale and swim face to face with this animal, that door opens and it never really closes,” he says.