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Whoever you are, wherever you are, regardless of your ambitions today, you will consume about 11,000 liters of this today and if you live to be 80, you would have consumed about 300 million liters of it. AIR – you never had to strike a deal with it when you were born to have it but you are locked in a rhythmic exchange of it for life. Yet, “breath” is, I think, the most unattended of life’s currencies. Because it is free, we say. But is it?
When we say “free”, one of the things that we mean is we never had to work to get it. And as such, we think and trust that breathing runs on a smooth algorithm that our respiratory organs obey and that every breath relies on that same measure. But we all know that we have shallow or deep breaths, fast or slow, halted or exuberant breaths depending on the trajectories of the moments of our days. If all those breaths were coded the same way in our bodies and minds, then why do the breaths differ depending on what we feel about what we experience? That is because each breath is unique.
Yes, EACH breath you take is a unique stamp in your inner spacetime. There is a lot of hard work going on inside your head to breathe even if you are not conscious of it. One study done in 2020 proved that as it looked at how brain cells all get into a frenzy of some kind of disparate rehearsals before they all synchronize and fire a breath. Each “frenzy” involves different brain cells every time, depending on the situation or conditions. When that signal for a breath is fired from your brain, the rest of your body – chest muscles, diaphragm, lungs – rise to the occasion and a breath is taken and a breath is released. If each breath were the same and recruited the same neuronal frenzy, you will never be able to breathe at the rate that you need to – which changes when you need to wake up, stand up, pay attention, run, relax or sleep.
We also think a breath is free because it is a “low” currency – so “common” that it is just what we need to simply exist. But what if you were told that breathing is not a force that not only allows you to be but to become? Yes, breathing shapes your brain because it is the invisible wind that sculpts the emotions and thoughts that you process. You just have to breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds to be convinced of the power of breath to shift whatever your emotional stance is right now to a “calmer” degree.
You will be further convinced if you knew that people who are trained to shoot guns are trained to pull the trigger after they exhale. This is what Prof Micah Allen of Aarhus University said when asked to explain the point of the study. His 2022 study provided clues on the links between our brain’s processes and our breathing rhythms. Generally, we pay attention and feel most connected to the world when we breathe in and then we let go when we breathe out. Just knowing that already makes you think of how permanent the power that breathing has over how we feel about situations and under certain conditions.
Lastly, I think we think breathing is free because we think air, good air, exists independently of other life forms. That is not just laughable but dangerous.
While most oxygen comes from the oceans, oxygen also comes from trees that breathe out the oxygen that we need to breathe in. Most of all, they take in the carbon dioxide that pollutes our air. A very recent study in the US found that more trees are linked to lower death rates caused by not just cardiovascular illnesses but also non-accidental ones. They also found that the older trees even accounted for associations for even lower death rates from the causes mentioned. So to anyone trying to find a DIRECT link to trees and not dying from heart-related and other illnesses caused by accidents, there you go.
Breathing is the most powerful proof against anyone who thinks we are separate from nature. Anyone who breathes connects her own body and mind to nature to live. Stop breathing and you check out of life – your life – even if your remains get plugged in as molecules for recycling by life-at-large. Think about that when you or anyone thinks that the business of nature is none of your business or only one of the many options for your attention.
Breathing is not free. Each breath takes laborious, bespoke inner cellwork. It enables you not just to be but to become. And it is brought to you by a natural sponsor named “trees.” – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.