David Servan-Schreiber wrote about the power of breathing in his book ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’. Basically if you can breathe at 6 breaths a minute you automatically convince your body and mind that all is well. Your ‘limbic system’ selects neutral and goes into a state of relaxation – and quietly puts into gear your immune system to do routine maintenance. Your head convinces itself that all is in good order too.
So steady breathing is clearly a good thing to do. It fixes your limbic, tunes up your endocrine and settles your cognitive systems. But what’s interesting about breathing 6 times a minute, is that it’s very hard to do. If you are agitatated, active or at all anxious you can’t do it.
I was reminded how hard it is watching ’2001: A Space Odyssey’. The film is slow, often majestic but but frequently claustrophobic and disquieting. And nowhere is it more claustrophobic then when you are virtually ‘in’ the spacesuit with Dr. David Bowman, breathing steadily, but strenuously as he prepares for and makes his lonely space walk in the sequence I’ve just watched.
The astronauts set out to fix a malfunction set up by the rogue on-board computer HAL. They surreptitiously discuss the potential need to disconnect HAL’s higher ‘brain’ functions to enable them to use his basic systems to run the space ship. Bowman wonders momentarily what HAL might ‘think’ of that – HAL’s single red ‘eye’ compulsively scans their mouths to lipread. We conclude HAL might not like that.
The combination of Kubrick’s perfectionism and Arthur C Clarke’s imagination is still a powerful one. I challenge anyone to watch this sequence and calmly breathe at 6 breaths a minute. Breathing both signals and drives the state of our nervous system. Even if the head says it’s fiction, finding yourself alone with HAL 9000 listening to the strenuous breathing of Dr Bowman makes the nervous system very nervous indeed.