Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Breathing before a brushstroke

Do you take a deep breath before you make a stroke of your brush or pen? Many of the old lettering and painting manuals advise the artist to breathe in before beginning a difficult mark. 

There may be a reason, according to a recent scientific paper. Your brain function alters with every inhalation and exhalation. It's a holdover from our sense of smell, one of our most primal senses.

It turns out our breathing in and breathing out is synchronized in lock-step with our cognitive activity. This is true not only for olfactory processing, but also for visual and spatial processing.
From the abstract: "We measured nasal airflow and electroencephalography during various non-olfactory cognitive tasks. We observed that participants spontaneously inhale at non-olfactory cognitive task onset and that such inhalations shift brain functional network architecture. Concentrating on visuospatial perception, we observed that nasal inhalation drove increased task-related brain activity in specific task-related brain regions and resulted in improved performance accuracy in the visuospatial task." 
This makes sense to me. Breathing skills are fundamental to so many art disciplines. After all, the word "inspiration" literally means breathing in. I wonder if the connection between inhalation and brain activity is more than just a link to an ancestral olfactory system, but also an unconscious desire to oxygenate the brain at the onset of increased cognitive load?

Nature Magazine: Human non-olfactory cognition phase-locked with inhalation


Pierre Fontaine said...

Given my job, I have to do lots of mockups in card-stock or foam board. My hobby is designing and building card-stock models. I realized long ago that before I cut anything with a sharp hobby knife, I inhale deeply and hold it as long as I'm cutting.

It's totally sub-conscious but I do it consistently. When I began to realize that I was doing it, I rationalized it as my body's way of steadying my hand or allowing me to focus on the task, otherwise I might cut myself badly. How interesting to think that this action is more common than I thought!

Dave Gibbons said...

And breathe out whilst making the stroke? It also seems to be easier to make a smooth controlled stroke in a "backhand" manner: arcing away from the body and harmonizing with expelled breath. I find it helps to look ahead of the stroke, aiming at its endpoint, too.

Jessica Kirby said...

You should check out the book, The Musician's Breath: The Role of Breathing in Human Expression. https://www.amazon.com/Musicians-Breath-Breathing-Human-Expression/dp/1579998348

Karl Kanner said...

If you hold your hand out in front of you, and breathe in and out, your arm will move up with the inhale and down with the exhale. It's just the lungs expanding and contracting combined with the arms being connected to the torso. Therefore, if you want to make a small precise mark, it makes sense to inhale and hold your breath first. I have to do it all the time!

Glenn Tait said...

Photographers and target shooters do the same, they inhale and hold so,there is no extra movement when they push the shutter or pull the trigger.

Jim Douglas said...

Beretta posted an article called "Four Breathing Methods for Shooters" on its blog (link below) and says, "controlled breathing is a necessity in shooting accuracy."

Timothy Bollenbaugh said...

James, your end comment makes all the sense in the world, as the participants had a specific task in mind before the olfactory issue, and oxygenation is so fundamental to tasks in general.

scottT said...

I think it's common practice for pin stripers too.

Kessie said...

Yoga and Pilates are all about the controlled breathing. I find that it helps control your body in general, whether you're lifting a heavy box, or holding a squat. How fascinating that it affects brain function! I'm going to try it next time I sit down to draw.

James Gurney said...

Thanks for all these perspectives on breathing. I think I've brought up two topics and inadvertently mixed them up: one is how we need to breathe in and hold our breath to do a controlled action. The other topic, and I think the finding of this study, is that our cognitive activity is linked closely to our breathing in and breathing out. It's another piece of evidence of "embodied consciousness" the idea that our cognitive processes not separate from our bodies, but closely connected with what happens in our physical selves.

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Bob said...

Did anyone say, "Breathe deep and seek peace?"

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