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The Science Behind Breathing

  • 3 min read

When air enters your nose, the many small hairs in your nose imme­diately filter out larger particles. Air then proceeds to the nasal conchae where it is humidified and warmed, and at the same time, smaller par­ticles are filtered out by the surrounding mucous membranes. Indeed if we use our nose properly, we will be able to appreciate this extremely sensitive organ. The entire nasal cavity receives nerve fibers from the nervous system, and thus directly influences our health and state of mind. In the upper part of the nose there is a number of delicate sen­sory cells that can detect various smells and odors, and the information from these are directed via nerve fibers to the brain.

In spite of its impressive sensory function, the nose does not receive much attention either culturally or medically in the Western world. This could be rooted in the fact that in our age, where information has to be fast and accessible, visual communication is preferred. In addition, as “civilized” human beings, we have left our original nature behind, and do not run around “sniffing” each other – perhaps because it is not vital for the survival of our species!

However, unconsciously our nose is constantly in use and receives a wealth of information from our environment. We all know how odors can have an overwhelming effect on us, for example it may lead us back to a childhood experience or, if the smell is atrocious, make your stom­ach turn inside out. Primitive people use their nose much more and also dilate their nostrils more frequently than we tend to. Notice for instance how you smell a flower or perfume. You most probably dilate your nos­trils and draw air up high into the nose.

As late as in 2004, the scientists Richard Axel and Linda Buck received a Nobel Prize for their discovery of an unknown group of odorant recep­tors on the olfactory receptor cells, their function and connection to the brain. This was a step towards a better understanding of how odors are intercepted and conceived. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal that we do not know about the nose. There is even an ongoing debate as to whether a sixth sense is present in humans – the so-called Jacobson’s organ.

By breathing through our nose, we not only clean and warm the air, but also detect a plethora of important information from our environ­ment. If you breathe through your mouth, this information is lost. In addition, NO (nitrogen oxide) from the sinuses are mixed with the inhaled air and passed to the lungs where it makes the blood vessels in the alveoli expand. This allows a greater volume of blood to pass, whereby more oxygen can be taken up. NO is also antibacterial.

Try to direct the air as high up in the nose as possible and sense it there. You can also visualize the air flow e.g. as a gently flowing golden wave. If you would like to know what your breath looks like, place a little mirror below your nostrils and exhale. Then you will be able to see the flow of air. If you stand in front of a large mirror and place a little mirror below your nose, the flow will be even more visible – especially if you blow hard. It will look like the heat waves on asphalt on a hot summer’s day, and will re­semble a little blazing fire.

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