Research news

Breathing out facilitates learning

Recent studies have shown that bodily rhythms, such as heartbeat, modulate learning. Novel studies at the University of Jyvaskyla show that the phase of breathing has an effect on learning.

Earlier findings suggest that the resting phase of the heartbeat is more favorable for learning. It is also known that breathing rhythm and heartbeat are coupled. Furthermore, the electrophysiological activity of the limbic system, a crucial region of the brain for learning, is rhythmically coupled with breathing.

The Behavioral Neuroscience Group from the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyvaskyla studied the effects of breathing in a simple learning task. In the experiment the conditioned stimulus was a tone followed by an air puff towards the eye. The unconditioned stimulus, the air puff, caused an involuntary eyeblink. Humans eventually learned to blink their eye before the air puff as a result of consecutive trials where the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli were repeatedly presented as a pair. At the end of the experiment, learning rates were found to be enhanced when the conditioning stimuli were presented during expiration rather than inspiration.

“We assume that the large neuronal ensembles (in the brainstem) that drive breathing and heartbeat have an effect on the neuronal state in other brain regions as well, and therefore, learning. However, the mechanism is unknown and requires further study,” says postdoctoral researcher Tomi Waselius.

The results of these studies could be applied in the study of, for example, degenerative memory diseases and learning disabilities.

More info:
Postdoctoral researcher Tomi Waselius, tomi.waselius@jyu.fi
Academy Research Fellow Miriam Nokia, miriam.nokia@jyu.fi

Website of the group: http://r.jyu.fi/neural-plasticity

Article available online: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/psyp.13387