In the past few years, I have been thinking and writing about "attention", and specifically, "continuous partial attention". The impetus came from my years of working at Apple, and then, Microsoft, where I thought a lot about user interface as well as our relationship to the tools we create.
I believe that attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit and that we can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries, or alter it with pharmaceuticals.
But lately I have observed that the way in which many of us interact with our personal technologies makes it impossible to use this extraordinary tool of attention to our advantage.
In observing others — in their offices, their homes, at cafes — the vast majority of people hold their breath especially when they first begin responding to email. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or over-breathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and CO2 balance.
Research conducted by two NIH scientists, Margaret Chesney and David Anderson, demonstrates that breath holding can contribute significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen and CO2 balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off.
Around this same time, I became very interested in the vagus nerve and the role it played. The vagus nerve is one of the major cranial nerves, and wanders from the head, to the neck, chest and abdomen. It's primary job is to mediate the autonomic nervous system, which includes the sympathetic — "fight or flight," and parasympathetic — "rest and digest" nervous systems.
The parasympathetic nervous system governs our sense of hunger and satiety, flow of saliva and digestive enzymes, the relaxation response, and many aspects of healthy organ function. Focusing on diaphragmatic breathing enables us to down regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which then causes the parasympathetic nervous system to become dominant. Shallow breathing, breath holding and hyper-ventilating triggers the sympathetic nervous system, in a "fight or flight" response.
The activated sympathetic nervous system causes the liver to dump glucose and cholesterol into our blood, our heart rate increases, we don't have a sense of satiety, and our bodies anticipate and resource for the physical activity that, historically, accompanied a physical fight or flight response. Meanwhile, when the only physical activity is sitting and responding to email, we're sort of "all dressed up with nowhere to go."
Some breathing patterns favor our body's move toward parasympathetic functions and other breathing patterns favor a sympathetic nervous system response. Buteyko (breathing techniques developed by a Russian M.D.), Andy Weil's breathing exercises, diaphragmatic breathing, certain yoga breathing techniques, all have the potential to soothe us, and to help our bodies differentiate when fight or flight is really necessary and when we can rest and digest.
I've changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I'm using a computer, PDA or cell phone.
I've discovered that the more consistently I tune in to healthy breathing patterns, the clearer it is to me when I'm hungry or not, the more easily I fall asleep and rest peacefully at night, and the more my outlook is consistently positive.
I've come to believe that, within the next 5-7 years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of any fitness regime.