I breathe deeply and their muscles relax. Why?
July 16, 2012 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Please explain the science behind this phenomenon. I want to know about the effect MY deep breathing has on the release of my clients' muscle tension. I have experienced and observed distinct differences between when I am deeply breathing, and when I default to shallow chest breathing. When I breathe deeply, their muscles release tension and relax, opening more and "melting" more to my work. It's quite remarkable.

I experienced/observed this phenomenon most vividly in a Thai Massage training class. I was working on a very athletic woman. She was a mountain trail runner, and her legs were ridiculously strong. Her muscles were severely congested, super contracted even in a "relaxed" state.

She was lying supine, fully clothed, on the mat. I was sitting next to her on the floor, with legs outstretched in front of me, perpendicular to her. I used only the edge of my foot against her IT band, gently but firmly setting it into the muscle, and then resting and waiting to see it relax.

Our teacher noticed my shallow breathing and prompted me to relax and breathe more deeply. As I did, her thigh muscles began to do what I have seen many do before as they begin to release -- a twitch response. Part of the "unwinding" process.

The teacher walked away, and I thought I'd play a bit with this and held my breath. The unwinding stopped. Breathed deeply again and it began again.

What is this phenomenon? I assume it's physics, so all you science folks out there, do tell. Thanks.
posted by sleeping beauty to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I can nearly guarantee it's not physics. This isn't the realm physics deals with.

It's possible that it's nothing more than confirmation bias. Don't be insulted by this - there's no way for you to effectively remove your own psychological responses from your experiments.

However, if it's not confirmation bias, it may have to do with an empathetic response to others around us. If someone is holding their breath, that could be an important clue that they've noticed something alarming - and what's alarming to someone near you is worth your attention at some level. (Was that a smilodon footstep? Or a squirrel?) So, it's possible that an outward, audible display of anxiety from you (holding your breath, or even shallow breathing) tends to rise anxiety levels (lower relaxation levels) in your patient.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:11 AM on July 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

Sounds like mirroring to me -- your client may unconsciously be matching your breathing pattern. When you are more relaxed, she is more relaxed.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:12 AM on July 16, 2012 [18 favorites]

It's not physics. How would it be physics? There is no transfer of "energy" between you because you are breathing differently.

There are two possibilities. You may be experiencing confirmation bias in which you think you are dispassionately observing this phenomenon but you are really only noticing when this works, and forgetting when it does not. This would lead you to identify an phenomenon that is not really there.

The other possibility is that the people you are massaging are unconsciously adjusting their breathing to be in sync with yours, and as you breathe deeply and relax, they are doing the same thing in a sympathetic response. This would be an effect of psychology.
posted by OmieWise at 7:14 AM on July 16, 2012

Sounds something like "Yawning contagion" or like vitabellosi said, mirroring.
posted by Blake at 7:15 AM on July 16, 2012

Seconding empathetic response and mirroring. Animals do this, including matching their breaths to humans'. It's one thing I've done consciously to help calm pets and shelter animals who were agitated or in pain, and it is effective.
posted by notquitemaryann at 7:25 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are some studies that suggest babies regulate their breathing better (FAQ has directions to studies, I'm too lazy to pull them up individually) when they are resting on an adult who's breathing slowly and calmly. (Which gets distilled in the woo-woo parenting media into people claiming that babies will "breathe at the same time as the mother" but that's patently untrue -- adults breathe around 15 times a minute, newborns breathe around 40 times a minute. If that's happening, either mom is hyperventilating or the baby needs to be in the NICU.) Babies' breathing reflexes aren't fully formed -- they do all sorts of speed-breathing and gasping and long breathing pauses -- so one of the theories is that adult breathing helps their brains keep rhythm.

Anyway, given that humans are pack animals and that our infants seem to "learn" to regulate their breathing partly by hanging out with breathing adults, it wouldn't be at all surprising to find that adults unconsciously mirror the breathing patterns of other adults. (I mean, just anecdotally, as the bad sleeper in my marriage, I always have an easier time falling back asleep when my husband is breathing deeply in sleep, it helps me relax and get dozier faster. And whenever he goes into REM sleep and starts breathing faster, it wakes me up. And it's astonishing, when you have an infant, how minute changes in nearly inaudible breathing can bring you out of a fairly deep sleep. I think we're pretty tuned to breathing, given how it's crucial and all. Even my cats breathing irregularly wakes me up.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:26 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Your observation is interesting, and would make a great research project. My sense is that you are the leader in the room, and when you are more relaxed, the other participant(s) follow your lead.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on July 16, 2012

I've also experienced this phenomenon through many years of giving massage to people. I think it's a result of both yawn contagion and more generally of mirroring by the recipient of the massage.

Deep steady breathing by the person receiving the massage helps them relax. That is hopefully not hard to understand. Now, how do I get them to breath deeply and steadily? I could simply instruct them to do so, but that doesn't work very well. The masseuse and recipient need to develop a rhythm together. Massage is more like a dance than it is like an instructional session. My own bodies rhythms, including the rhythms of my breathing, set the pace for the recipient.

My experience of mirroring during massage actually goes a step further than this. When I give massage, I watch for tension developing in my own body. Often the locations where I feel tense mirror locations that need work in the person receiving the massage. I don't know the specific mechanism that makes this happen, but I've noticed and acted on it to good effect for many years.

(Disclaimer - I've never been a professional masseuse, just a dedicated amateur.)
posted by alms at 7:51 AM on July 16, 2012

I was just talking to someone about this last weekend. She is a psychotherapist and deliberately syncs her breathing to that of her clients. So first she matches her breathing to theirs, so it's short and shallow, and once they are in sync then she deliberately slows and deepens her breathing and theirs follows suit. She doesn't tell them what she's doing. She says it works like magic, every time.
posted by HotToddy at 8:12 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

As others have mentioned, the explanation for what you are experiencing has roots in yawn contagion, more specifically in mirror neurons and their role in empathy.

Read this Wikipedia article, and I think you'll get a pretty good scientific explanation of what exactly is happening when you influence someone with your breathing.

And from the Wikipedia article on yawning: "A 2007 study found that young children with autism spectrum disorders do not increase their yawning frequency after seeing videos of other people yawning, in contrast to typically developing children. In fact, the autistic children actually yawned less during the videos of yawning than during the control videos. This supports the claim that contagious yawning is related to empathic capacity."

I think this boils down to primates' innate ability for empathy. More Wikipedia: "The human capacity to recognize the bodily feelings of another is related to one's imitative capacities and seems to be grounded in the innate capacity to associate the bodily movements and facial expressions one sees in another with the proprioceptive feelings of producing those corresponding movements or expressions oneself."

Additionally, the technique of breath syncing is used in hypnosis, and in situations where a caregiver is trying to develop rapport with a client/patient. (See HotToddy's comment.) There is an apocryphal story I heard about a catatonic man, who hadn't responded to any traditional treatment. One of his nurses tried sitting next to him and simply synced her breath to his. After an hour of breathing together, he turned to her and said "Hey, what are you doing?" And some anecdata: When I nannied for a toddler, I used to get him to fall asleep by syncing my breath to his, then gradually breathing slower. He would unconsciously match my breath pattern and become very calm, then drift off.
posted by Specklet at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2012

Response by poster: Omiewise, you say there is no transfer of energy between us because I am breathing differently. And so it couldn't be physics.

That is precisely what I'm asking about.

My Chinese Tai Chi teacher once brought a little light connector gadget to class with him and had us all circle up. When one person dropped the connection, the light went out. When they reconnected, the light went back on. There was some kind of energy exchange going on. (That's all the information I can remember about the gadget).

If the energy between us caused the light to turn on, is it possible that increased oxygen flow might cause a greater energy exchange on some level?

I'm not a scientist, but please respect my intelligence in considering with me.

Thanks a bunch.
posted by sleeping beauty at 1:53 PM on July 16, 2012

If the energy between us caused the light to turn on, is it possible that increased oxygen flow might cause a greater energy exchange on some level?

I'm not a scientist, but please respect my intelligence in considering with me.

I took your question seriously and answered it.

There was no energy in your body that made that stick glow. There was a battery in the stick, and the humans touching completed a circuit that allowed the light inside to operate. You can buy one here.

If your Tai Chi teacher was trying to suggest to you that the energy to power the light came from the hand holding, they were selling you a bill of goods. This kind of thing matters because the "energy" nonsense purveyed by new age non-science ends up causing some real problems when people forgo actual scientific methods for solving, say, medical problems in favor of "energy" woo. Your question was good, your hypothesis about this being about physics was just the wrong hypothesis.
posted by OmieWise at 2:12 PM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, then skip the hypothesis. Isn't the circuit you are talking about a circuit that involves energy????? (I'm talking about electrical energy or some kind of scientifically measurable energy. I'm not talking about woowoo.)

No, my Tai Chi teacher was not trying to suggest that. Please let's not presume anything about the woowoo practicers. I don't think I'm one of them, but they're not all unscientific.
posted by sleeping beauty at 2:17 PM on July 16, 2012

Well, the key here is that the light turns on in the stick because there is a battery in the stick. Essentially what happens is that one person grabs one end, and the power from the battery flows through their body (basically through the water in their body) and so on into the next person until someone grabs the other terminal on the stick. Without the battery in the stick, which supplies the power, there would be no light. In the light stick example, the human body is completely passive. If you clipped a wire to each side of the stick it would also light up.

In your breathing example, it isn't something passing from your body to theirs, some energy, it's (likely) their sympathetic central nervous system (unconscious) response to the rhythm of your breath. The human body has all kinds of tricks like this. If you bear down like you're taking a huge dump, your pulse goes down. This is a function of the parasympathetic nervous system.
posted by OmieWise at 2:27 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, I'd written this response, but I think Omie has explained it pretty well:

Oh, I see what you're asking.

Omiewise is right: this is nothing to do with physics or an exchange of electrical energy; the explanation lies in the neurological and/or psychological realm. The example you've given of hand-holding to make a light turn on is a simple electrical circuit. Our bodies (and many other things) conduct electricity, and electricity is the flow of electrons through a complete path. But there has to be a source of the electrons, like a battery.

When you are working on a client, there is no source of electrons, no battery, and no circuit.
posted by Specklet at 2:53 PM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the other thing that probably happened is that your foot (which was touching the client, right?) relaxed more when you breathed deeply. They felt your muscles relaxing, and that triggered theirs to follow. It's I guess the same mirroring response other people are talking about, but maybe not just directly by copying breathing patterns.
posted by lollusc at 6:25 PM on July 16, 2012

sleeping beauty: My Chinese Tai Chi teacher once brought a little light connector gadget to class with him and had us all circle up. When one person dropped the connection, the light went out. When they reconnected, the light went back on. There was some kind of energy exchange going on. (That's all the information I can remember about the gadget).
You were witness to a magic* show, and I'm truly sorry that your teacher duped you like this. They may have simply been making a symbolic point, but it left the mistaken impression that humans were somehow "powering" the light, when a simple battery was responsible.

*Not "magic" like Harry Potter; magic like Penn & Teller do - and then reveal the very ordinary deceptions they did to trick us.
sleeping beauty: Please let's not presume anything about the woowoo practicers. I don't think I'm one of them, but they're not all unscientific.
I hope you mean "not all Tai Chi teachers are unscientific" (which is true). By definition, all "woowoo practicers" are unscientific.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:02 AM on July 17, 2012

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