Feb 4

A One-Track Mind: Your Brain and Its Only Goals

We're going to let you in on a little-known secret.

Your brain doesn’t care about your goals. Not one iota. In fact, it doesn’t care about your fears, wants, dreams, or anything else that drives you.

Your brain cares about only two things: predicting the future and of course, helping you survive.

But more on that later.

Okay, okay, your brain cares on some level. Various neural networks and their supporting staff register the importance of a goal, how to best define it, and grapple with a plan on how to best reach it.

However, this is a very distant second on the list of priorities.

Your brain is single-minded (no pun intended), with only one priority, one purpose, and one primacy.

To accurately predict the future in order to keep you alive.

Black and white image of a brain

The Fortune-Teller Within

And it is remarkably good at this.

Sadly, it can’t predict the winning lottery numbers or next Bitcoin, but it can correctly foresee whether crossing the street at any given moment will get you hit by a car, whether eating that sandwich you found on the subway will give you food poisoning, or whether that strange looking animal in the alley is a threat.

What’s more, your brain is constantly working on your behalf, making dozens of predictions and adjustments based on them throughout the day so as to keep you safe and your body in balance.

Oxygen and glucose levels, adrenaline, what you’ll have too much of, heart rate, cortisol, what you’ll have too little of, pupil dilation, breath rate, dopamine, fight-or-flight response, and more are all the result of a split-second prediction and assessment.

Everything else is secondary.

Obviously, this takes a great deal of pressure off us in our day-to-day existence. It would be exhausting and virtually impossible if we had to consciously do this for ourselves.

Thankfully, we don’t. No crystal ball or palm-reading necessary.

A Helping Hand

Or breath, as the case may be.

Because it turns out that you can assist your overworked brain with its one and only goal — making predictions to keep you alive — through breath training.

Take the simple in-and-out process of breathing itself. Recent studies have discovered that rhythmic breathing creates electrical activity in the brain, and this increased activity boosts both emotional judgment and memory recall.

More specifically, the researchers found that test subjects were better able to quickly identify faces expressing fear when shown during inhalation through the nose.

Likewise, subjects were better able to recall objects shown to them when encountered during inhalation rather than exhalation.

The takeaway? The rapid breathing that occurs in a panic state or when we are afraid may actually allow us to identify and deal with dangerous stimuli faster than normal.

Intentional breathing > better brain function > mission accomplished.

Other studies have shown a relationship between paced breathing — breathing in and out to a set rhythm — increased focus, and nervous system regulation.

In short, intentional breathing — whether rapid, paced, or otherwise — leads to increased activity across several sections of the brain, and a slew of potential advantages for its prime directive.

The amygdala, for example, may trigger fear, anxiety, and anger from heavy breathing and quick, frequent inhalations. This makes us more attuned to those emotions and better able to deal with a potentially dangerous situation.

The insula — which regulates the autonomic nervous system — has also been linked to body awareness. Paced breathing can prompt posterior insular activation, which can trigger a stronger awareness of bodily states.

And finally, tracked breathing seems to activate the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, which is related to moment-to-moment awareness.

Rapid, paced, and tracked breathing > activation in parts of the brain responsible for behavior, emotions, awareness, and thinking.

Your brain is solely concerned with your survival. So give it a helping and mindful breath.

The Body Oxygen Level Test

Also known as BOLT, the body oxygen level test is simple to complete (no studying required). It consists of nothing more than holding your breath:

  • Take a normal breath in through your nose
  • Exhale as normal out through your nose
  • Pinch your nostrils closed and hold your breath
  • Time how long until the first natural urge to breathe again
  • Release your nose, and breathe normally

It’s important to note here that BOLT is not a measure of how long you can hold your breath. You should stop timing as soon as you feel compelled to inhale.

A healthy BOLT score is 40 seconds. So, how’d you do?

You may think that it’s the lack of oxygen that compels us to breathe. It’s not. It’s actually the accumulation of carbon dioxide and our tolerance level to it.

The strength of your ventilatory response to carbon dioxide will determine the length of your BOLT score: a strong response means your tolerance level will be reached sooner, and your breath hold time will be lower.

Your breathing volume increases with your ventilatory response. If you’re sensitive to carbon dioxide, your lungs will work harder to remove excess levels of it.

It’s not unusual for individuals — even those who exercise regularly — to have a BOLT score around 20 seconds. Less than that, and you’re likely prone to breathlessness, wheezing, coughing, snoring, and fatigue.

That’s not great.

You can increase your BOLT score with practice (reduce mouth-breathing, breath hold repetitions, nasal-only breathing while exercising).

That is great.

But why bother? Isn’t carbon dioxide a waste product that we need to expel?

While that is true, a reduced tolerance can lead to overbreathing and expelling too much CO2. Too little, and we actually decrease delivery of oxygen to our muscles and tissues.

Carbon dioxide is the yin to oxygen’s yang. Oxygen is the fuel, and CO2 is the transporter. It’s called the Bohr Effect.

Suffice to say, when you take steps to improve your BOLT score, you’re increasing your tolerance to carbon dioxide and the efficiency with which oxygen is delivered to your body and brain. That’s win-win.

You’ll be able to maintain calm breathing at rest, and experience less breathlessness during physical activity.

And that ensures the maximum delivery of oxygen to your brain so it can be the best dang prognosticator possible.

Better BOLT, better breathing, better brain.

Better you.