For neuroscientist Dr. Martha Havenith, psychedelics are not the only way to explore altered states of consciousness. The Max Planck Research Group Leader at the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience (Frankfurt, Germany) works with voluntary hyperventilation (also referred to as Breathwork) to achieve different perceptions. During her talk at INSIGHT 2021, she explains how exactly rapid breathing works and what effect it causes.
Breathwork has been used by many peoples for thousands of years. These include spiritual techniques like Kundalini Yoga or certain Native American practices, as well as newer or rediscovered variations such as holotropic breathing techniques, consciousness-connected breathing techniques or rebirthing. And although they have different settings and characteristics, they all have a common core principle: They intensify the breath through long and deep inhalation and rapid relaxed exhalation. Crucial to all effective breathing techniques, however, is that inhalation and exhalation are linked.
Normally, people take breaks between inhaling and exhaling. In order to induce altered states of consciousness, experts resort to circular breathing. Here, a long inhalation is followed by a short exhalation. If this is done for some time, the breath becomes faster. According to Havenith, the early effects include the feeling of small pinpricks and a slight dizziness. "But if you keep breathing for a few more minutes, more interesting things begin to happen. Your perception may change ... you may see colours differently than usual.... you may find that parts of your body move without you, feeling that you are consciously controlling them. I've seen people who weren't very athletic suddenly be able to hold crazy yoga figures." For other people, she says, emotions or memories came to the surface that they didn't know of.
"Eventually, there were experiences that I would call visions," Havenith says. She deliberately distinguishes these states of consciousness from the terms hallucination or psychotic symptom. This is because in breathwork, people would also see, feel or hear things that they had not known before, but they would know very well that these things were not physically perceptible. "You might be having a conversation with someone, but you know that that someone is not standing right in front of you. It's more like your brain is processing information in a way based on images and sounds rather than words." This is not a phenomenon that affects only a few people, she said; around 80 to 90% experience unexpected emotions, and 30 to 40% experience visions.
Based on the various pieces of information, Havenith and colleagues in other publications put forward a kind of conspiracy theory as to how breathwork works. The physiological effects of circular breathing are well documented in studies. For example, the oxygen content in the blood increases and the CO2 content decreases, the pH value of the blood becomes more alkaline, the blood vessels constrict, the heart rate and cortisol increase. A study by Bednarczyk in 1990 shows the effect: More CO2 leads to higher cortical blood flow. "This is where we start to speculate that this could be beyond conscious control and this is the reason why," Havenith says.
Does breathwork have a long-term effect on the body and/or mind? A paper on the long-term effects was published last year by the neuroscientists Brouwer and Carhart-Harris. For Havenith, this is important work. According to the authors, mental states can be induced in the brain that could support rapid and profound learning and mediate psychological changes.
Conscious breathing would increase neuronal activity, which in some cases could even help to process trauma, anxiety or depression. A great advantage of breathwork is that it works without substances and can be accessed by anyone, anytime, anywhere. It is also always under one's own control and the dynamics can be changed individually. Those who feel overwhelmed by the many impressions can stop at any time. Psychedelics do not offer that.