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AN OPEN UP SCIENTIFIC BREATHWORK RESEARCH

 

The effects of conscious connected breathing on cortical brain activity, mood and state of consciousness in healthy adults

 

 

Welcome,

Guest.

FOREWORD         I am quite confident that we are living in non-ordinary times, and that we need practices to attune to non-ordinary places in ourselves, with others and in the world, to make sense of them. We're on the cusp of a new era of introducing breathwork as an experiential approach to therapy for reducing depression and supporting mental health.​ In 2020 I set out this project. Over the last 3 years I have been working together a group of brilliant researchers and Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam to conduct a clinical scientific breath-work research: a non-profit Open Up initiative to build a solid foundation for more scientific understanding of how breathing, particularly 'conscious connected breathing' brings about inner change; neurologically and psychologically. I am really excited to share the fruits of our labour with you in our manuscript. The results of our profound scientific study was accepted on August 10, 2023 and published online on September 8, 2023. 

As the research initiator, my roles have also been: creator of concept theory, Principal contributor of conceptualization and methodology, co-author of the manuscript (writing — review and editing), creator of the breathwork methodology and recording, and supervisor. 

Regardless of my excitement for what's possible with our results and efforts in this study, science is demonstrating a suggestion of truth of (only) the things that can be measured, which is also exciting. It is a testament to the importance of unseen measures in our lives. We might agree that we are living in the age of measured accountability, of reward for measured performance, and a strong belief in the virtues of publicising the metrics through transparency. The danger is that it can become a general concept of usefully reducing a human endeavor to a set of statistics, which is one of the dominant paradigms of the 21st century and is pervading mainstream healthcare and policing. Although measurement itself is not a bad thing, it can also distort, distract and destroy what we claim to value. My understanding is that there cannot be any ‘official’ knowledge. As long as we remain servants to the paradigm that modernity has imposed on our body, it will continue to cover other existing relationships and surrounding landscapes for discovery. The whole point of science is that most of it is uncertain. That's why science is exciting, because we don't know. Science is a process of exploring, which is always partial. I am therefore offering this Open Up scientific research as an examination and experiential practice to come into new transfers of thought and of perceiving the world. To stay open with an equal care for the process of knowing what we don’t know. I am excited to start introducing our work as extra-curricular; Alive Learning. A form of education and practice that is applying a complexity of living and breathing in an ecology of change where we remain open to welcoming what I am now calling The Guest. Shifting perspectives to create transformative, effective action with each 'other'.

 

WORDS

Katrien Franken

8 September 2023

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We are presenting promising results in our study: 'The effects of conscious connected breathing on cortical brain activity, mood and state of consciousness in healthy adults'.

Abstract

We examined breathwork in the form of conscious connected breathing on electroencephalography (EEG) and mood states in 20 healthy participants (aged between 23 and 39 years) before and after breathwork. In addition, to compare with other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness, and to advance understanding of breathwork and its viability as a therapeutic methodology, we measured the subjective effects of breathwork using the 11 Dimension Altered State of Consciousness questionnaire. (11D-ASC; Studerus et al., 2010) and investigated changes in mood in the participants, using the Profile of Mood States questionnaire (McNair et al., 1971). In addition, we measured the effects of breathwork in a way that is comparable to other altered states of consciousness, such as psychedelics. We compared it to more well-established intervention methods, i.e. the dose–response profile of psilocybin (Hirschfeld & Schmidt, 2021) together with changes in cortical brain activity in a resting state by comparing EEG spectral power before and after the session.

 

To the best of our knowledge, our study presents the first investigation into the immediate neuro-psychological effects of connected breathing breathwork, as well as perceived changes in mood and consciousness during the experience, in healthy individuals. 

 

 

 

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'Breathwork decreases tension, confusion, depression and anger, while esteem increased'. 

Scientific Motivations 

  • As the majority of studies provide knowledge on the effects of slow breathing, the overall objective of our study was to examine whether faster breathing intervention would induce comparable outcomes. We found out that it did.

  • We wanted to examine if breathwork might alleviate depression. Our results are presenting positive neurophysiological findings. The Profile of Mood states indicated that after one breathwork session, participants experienced a reduction in negative affect states; tension, depression, confusion and anger, while esteem increased.

  • Further, we looked into the subjective reports of how breathwork changes consciousness during the experience in comparison to non-ordinary states of consciousness as induced by psychedelic "psilocybin", which is the active substance in a specific type of mushrooms (psilocybe cubensis) and truffles. The spectral changes found in our study are in similar frequency bands as found influenced by psychedelic states, for example DMT (Ayahuasca) which also displayed a decrease in theta, delta and beta power, and an increase in gamma power. The scores on the 11-ASC scale indicated that subjective experiences during breathwork were similar to the experiences after medium to high doses of psilocybin.

Summary of results

Breathwork as a means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness is gaining traction as a potential therapeutic modality in support of mental health, especially with a focus on introducing breathwork into mainstream healthcare. In line with the notion that breathwork might alleviate depression, the results of our Open Up study indicate that ‘conscious connected breathing’ which is characterized by faster diaphragmatic way of breathing, changes brain activity, and is showing a positive effect on mood status that are associated with a better mental condition, and induces mystical experiences. We highlight as a consequence the potential of breathwork as a complementary therapeutic modality by activating therapeutic benefits on a neuropsychological level. These results are promising and suggest that Katrien's methodology could be useful to improve mental well-being. 


 

Data collection

We performed EEG spectral power analysis of eyes closed rest recordings before and after the breathwork session showed a decrease in delta (1–4 Hz) and theta (4–8 Hz) frequencies in fronto-temporal and parietal regions, respectively no changes were seen in Alpha (9–12 Hz) and Beta (12–30 Hz) bands. However, after decomposing the beta waves in Beta 1 (12–15 Hz), Beta 2 (15–20 Hz), Beta 3 (20–30 Hz), decreases in power were observed across Beta1 and Beta 2 in parietotemporal regions.

Notably we observed a decrease in slow wave spectral power together with an increase in gamma rhythm in experienced participants, which is a sign of cortical excitation which has also been found responsible for alleviating depression symptoms (Fitzgerald & Watson, 2018). This view is supported by results of multiple studies indicating that the most prominent EEG frequency marker for depression is an increase in absolute power in delta, theta and beta during eyes closed rest (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019). Exactly in these three bands we found a reduction after the breathwork.

The reduction in delta and theta in our study correlates with the reduction in depression and leave us with an interesting clue about the potential of breathwork in this framework of depression. 

General info about brain waves

Delta activity has been linked to sleep states, known as Spontaneous Slow Wave.

 

Theta activity is associated with memory encoding and problem solving. (Elevated Theta power has been described in neuroticism and avoidance. The decrease in Theta power in our study could suggest a more open, less self-centered mindset and could be involved in changes in memory processing linked to the breathwork practice.

 

Beta waves have been associated with alertness, focus, stress, and anxiety. Increased Beta, and in particular Beta1 and 2 power have been linked to increased rumination, a phenomenon recurrently described in anxiety and depression.

 

Gamma waves are considered to be the fastest brain activity. It is responsible for cognitive functioning, learning, memory, and information processing. In optimal conditions gamma waves help with attention, focus, binding of senses (smell, sight, and hearing), consciousness, mental processing, and perception.

 

Positive results in Mood states after breathwork

The mood states as measured by the POMS questionnaire indicated that after the breathwork session, participants experienced a reduction in negative affect states; tension, confusion, depression and anger, while esteem increased.

Breathwork and the similarities in psychedelics

 

As the subjective experience during breathwork sessions was anecdotally paralleled to the effects of meditation and psychedelics, we compared our findings with these modalities. The spectral changes found in our study are in similar frequency bands as found influenced by psychedelic states, for example DMT (Ayahuasca) which also displayed a decrease in theta, delta and beta power and an increase in gamma power.

The scores on the 11-ASC scale indicated that subjective experiences during breathwork were similar to the experiences after medium to high doses of psilocybin, which may be indicative of the occurrence of experiences of mystical quality.  Our results indicate that breathwork induces non-ordinary states of consciousness that are similar to psychedelics.

  • On all subscales of the ‘Oceanic Boundlessness’ subdimension (blissful state, spiritual experience, disembodiment, experience of unity, insightfulness) breathwork exhibited scores similar to high doses of psilocybin. 

  • On the ‘Visionary Restructuralization’ subdimension breathwork exhibited scores similar to medium doses of psilocybin, with ‘changed meaning of percepts’ showing highest scores. 

 

  • On the ‘Dread of Ego-Dissolution’ subdimension, participants scored very low. This dimension was also the lowest during psilocybin experiences. 

 

Study Design

  • 20 healthy participants (age 23–39)

  • Psychological questionnaires:   POMS, 11 D–ASC

  • Breathing rate recordings

  • Heart rate recordings

  • EEG recording (electrocortical activity)

Participants enrollment through submission of the application form on Open Up website

Consent form

filling

POMS Questionnaire

Application of the EEG recording devices

Baseline resting state recording eyes closed

Introduction to breathwork - 15 min audio played to participant

Data analysiis

11D-ASC 

 questionnaire

POMS Questionnaire

Post breathwork  resting state recording eyes closed

Breathwork session 45 min and neuro

 physiological recordings

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The effects of conscious connected breathing on cortical brain activity, mood and state of consciousness in healthy adults

The Breathwork Method

an experiment

​Breathwork as a means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness is gaining traction as a potential therapeutic modality. The breathwork method we are presenting is created by Katrien Franken, and is specifically designed for this study. She does not offer any standardized breathwork. In fact Open Up is approaching breathwork as a natural, spontaneous process and unfolding of movement and expression.

 

For this study, Katrien provided verbal instructions on an audio recording together with a carefully designed music playlist for during the breathing. The instructions comprised 15 min and included a basic breathwork introductory talk including the Open Up technique, instructions for breathing with audible breathing demonstration, how to meet the experience, what to expect with  the possible effects of experience, instructions for breathing, and guidelines for integration support. It also included a short meditation and bodyscan. The actual breathing time was 45 min. Participants were asked to lie in a comfortable position and were instructed to take full conscious connected diaphragmatic breaths leaving no pause between the inhalation and exhalation.

A specific feature of the breathwork technique applied in this study is that there was no psychological or theoretical priming before the session. Additionally, even though the participants were advised to breathe slightly faster and deeper than normal, they could set their own rate, pattern and nature of breathing in the session, to give full autonomy in exploring their own experiences. As a consequence, although the procedure of this session was standardized as much as possible, the setup of parameters like breathing rate and pattern was not fixed. This was an important part of the process. After the session, participants received an information letter and, in case of questions, were invited to contact Open Up.

Open Up, Vrij Universiteit of Amsterdam

Trial period: July - August 2021. Treatment room at

Medical Faculty Building at Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam

 

Our next phase of work

Re-imagining education 

The next phase of our work at Open Up is called Futures Are Us; a movement focussed on re-imagining education in support of the health and development of younger people and society, with a virtuous relationship between the two to create a wildly better shared future into being. 

Because it is too late to educate  in the ways we know how

 

If you are interested in being part of what Open Up is building, including becoming a founding funder of our work, please get in touch. If you're interested in our work for your University or school, please also get in touch.

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Help us kickstart this movement

 Futures Are Us

 

Notes towards more integrity

 

Ethics approval

This study was performed in line with the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki. Ethical approval was obtained from the Scientific and Ethical Review Board of the Faculty of Behavioral and Movement Sciences of the Vrije Universiteit (Date 28.6.2021/No 2021-141).

Notes for integrity

We are deeply grateful for the joint effort and input of all involved – and we are not indifferent to the many breaches of agreement by Hersencentrum and its affiliated researchers. We would celebrate our achievements even more if integrity and liability to agreements would have been met. These values ensure a quality of relationship and trust which acts as a different form of contribution. 

Non-profit

This research study is a non-profit project, set out by Katrien Franken in 2020. She is a researcher but not a scientist. This study has been conducted without financial support or funds for Open Up. All scientific researchers and students who are part of this study, volunteered to contribute. Only M. Irrmischer, J.B. Deijen and H. Engelbregt, received payments through their employment for Hersencentrum. Open Up and Katrien Franken did not work with, or for Hersencentrum. 

Publisher

We thank our publisher Springer, and Current Psychology; an international forum for rapid dissemination of peer-reviewed research at the cutting edge of psychology. 

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