Written by Gunnel Minett

These days there are many who claim that practicing Breathwork* makes people feel better, both physically and psychologically, but fewer are able to provide an explanation as to how this is possible. How can simply changing your breathing pattern for a period of time have an effect on both body and mind? Perhaps unexpectedly, the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead may provide an explanation based on quantum physics.

Macro level

Looking at the physiology of Breathwork, most breathing techniques focus on opening up the breathing pattern, usually to increase relaxation or oxygen intake, or both. A common symptom of stress in everyday life is restricted breathing. This, in turn, may lead to the body being starved of oxygen, which results in increased body tension, which prolongs the breath restriction. This hypertension is known to cause physical problems by increasing ‘wear and tear’. So by intentionally trying to release restrictions in the breathing pattern, this can in itself improve bodily functions. 

But it’s also claimed that Breathwork can lead to improved psychological health. This is more difficult to explain. Apart from the obvious increase in relaxation, with positive effects, breathwork is also claimed to lead to permanent changes in negative behavioural patterns; addiction, phobias and other long-term psychological problems. Something less obvious must be behind these changes. This is where the various techniques start to differ in their explanations.

In traditional eastern techniques, such as Pranayma Yoga and Chi Gong, the explanations are based on a different understanding of the bodily functions. This includes energy fields and their pathways. Chakras, which are fairly well known in the west these day, are an essential part of yoga philosophy. Chi Gong has similar explanations, roughly corresponding  to the body’s inner organs. Many of the modern techniques developed in the west, tend to appeal to these traditional explanations, based on these ancient eastern ideas (often not even correctly understood). This is often mixed with ‘New Age’ thinking, which sometimes seems to stem from ‘channeling’ rather than the presentation of facts. But western science has come a long way toward providing its own explanatory theories regarding Breathwork. These are based on both neuroscience but also an increased understanding of quantum physics. And although some of the modern explanations seem quite far fetched, some of them are actually backed up by modern science.

Micro level

One such science-based explanation comes from Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘Process Philosophy’ (even if it too can seem quite far fetched and counter-intuitive). This theory deals with how the micro cosmos influences the macro cosmos. According to Whitehead’s cosmology, “..the only fundamentally existent things are discrete “occasions of experience” that overlap one another in time and space, and jointly make up the enduring person or thing. On the other hand, what ordinary thinking often regards as “the essence of a thing” or “the identity/core of a person” is an abstract generalisation of what is regarded as that person or thing’s most important or salient features across time. Identities do not define people; people define identities. Everything changes from moment to moment and to think of anything as having an “enduring essence” misses the fact that “all things flow,” though it is often a useful way of speaking…”(From Alfred North Whitehead on Wikipedia)

In a very simplified interpretation, we can understand this as follows; on the micro level everything is part of the same ‘energy’ and more a flow than anything fixed or static. Depending on which worldview we adhere to, we can describe it as life energy, creative force, God, Atman, Brahma, Prana. Chi etc. It is not until this energy starts to move particles in ways that will make them form molecular patterns that can be detectable on the macro level that we see things as fixed or static. In the micro cosmos everything is the same even when it is expressed in different forms on the macro level. The life energy permeates everything and surrounds everything. When we breathe, we breathe in the same life energy that permeates everything in the universe. 

In his book ‘Processing Reality’ (2022)*** John Buchanan interprets Whitehead theory as: “All actual occasions—from the momentary events that make up quarks, electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, and the human psyche—are quantum pulses of synthetic feeling, according to process metaphysics. Some moments of experience are more wave-like; some are more particle-like. Enduring objects—temporally-ordered series of events, such as atoms, cells, and molecules—are more particle-like, drawing heavily on their own predecessors to sustain their basic structure. But, like all actual occasions, they also receive and transmit wave-like feelings from the larger universe.” 

“Since the moments of experience making up the human psyche are of the same kind of quantums of synthetic feeling that constitute the rest of the universe, one can begin to see how Whitehead’s philosophy offers an incredible opportunity for psychology to make fertile cross-disciplinary connections with biology, chemistry, and even physics: the entities they study are all of the same fundamental nature and are explicitly part of the same quantum universe. But for Whitehead, these quantums are all composed of feeling or experience—albeit extremely primitive, nonconscious experience in most cases—with the potential for consciousness to accrue only to some higher order occasions.Primitive experience or feeling is ubiquitous throughout the universe, and thus there is no radical disjunction between mind and matter; between psychology, religion, and science; or in the evolution of higher forms of life out of Earth’s chemical brew.”

Buchanan’s continues: “…the human body is to be conceived as a complex ‘amplifier’—to use the language of the technology of electromagnetism. The various actual entities, which compose the body, are so coordinated that the experiences of any part of the body are transmitted to one or more central occasions to be inherited with enhancements accruing upon the way, or finally added by reason of the final integration. The enduring personality is the historic route of living occasions which are severally dominant in the body at successive instants.” (p119)

“In Whitehead’s vision, the universe is composed of layered organic environments that are intrinsically permeable to intuitive perception based on the direct flow of past events into present experience. This bears repeating: the universe in all its glory and detailed nuance is inherently open and accessible to all events in general and to human intuition in particular.” (p142).

The role of Change

In a universe where ‘all things flow’ change plays a crucial part. As human beings we change all the time, from one moment to another. And change, Whitehead claims, is what forms consciousness. We are aware of things that change and not aware of things that remain constantly the same. A fish swimming in water is unaware of the water until it is scoped out of it and into air. For us land animals we are not aware of the air that we breathe unless it disappears or changes in some other way: it is the changes that we experience that form the basis of consciousness. 

As human beings who register change all the time, we have a well developed awareness of the world. In fact we are so keen on registering change, that we focus on changes and ‘fill in’ bits that we are unable to detect in order to register as much change as possible. A weakness in this strategy is that we are never really perceiving the ‘real world’. Instead we ‘construct’ a world around us that is drawing from past experiences as much as the present. One consequence of this is that we may bias or distort the picture so as to reflect the past more than the present. In psychotherapy, the role of the therapist is to help to detect and separate out the ‘past’ from the ‘present’ in order to enable a clearer perception for the future.

The basics of Psychotherapy

There’s a common (mis)conception of psychotherapy as a doctor in a white coat telling the patient what is wrong with them. In fact, psychotherapy is nothing like this. Regardless of technique, the basic concept is to help the client to ‘sort out’ thoughts, feelings and their conclusions that somehow may cause ‘a neural traffic jam’ in the brain. With too many conflicting neural pathways being activated at the same time, the result is likely to be muddle and confusion. This fails to help us when confronting difficult situations. Psychotherapy is really another word for helping a person to sort out their neural pathways and to get the brain to work in a more constructive way. 

Louis Cozolino (2006)**** explains this: “We need each other and our stories to discover ourselves, regulate our emotions, and heal from traumatic injuries. Humans serve as external neural circuits that we can use to help each other bridge dissociated neural networks, provide us with new ideas, and activate feelings within us that we may be unable to access or have forgotten to remember. When loving others link their brain with ours, the result is a vital integration. We can use our interpersonal resonance, intuition, and empathetic abilities to help and heal one another. Human brains have vulnerabilities and weaknesses that only other brains are capable of mending. For human beings (and neurons), relationships are a natural habitat.” (p307)

This ability to change and adjust to other brains around us comes into play during breathwork. When we open up our breathing pattern, we open up to a closer interaction with the world around us. If we are effectively supported by a breathwork facilitator, we are able to ‘tune in’ to this person’s brain with increased openness. The facilitator will then be able to help the client to experience the emotions that the breathing has activated and then to release increased energy flows into the client’s body. This enables the client to get external help to form new neural pathways in the brain, which is ultimately what all psychotherapy is aiming to achieve.

Collective consciousness

As described above, the energy field that Whitehead describes, also contains our planet’s collective history. Jung called this our ‘collective unconsciousness’. This is what we tap into every time we breath in air and contribute to every time we breathe out. And again, from this perspective, we are all connected and in this respect one and the same. So to breathe air is more than simply supplying the body with oxygen. It is also to breathe in our collective consciousness and all that this entails.

Psychedelics and psychotherapy

After long-term bans in many countries, psychedelic drugs are now being used as a tool in psychotherapy with very powerful and positive results. These drugs have a similar effect to the change of breathing pattern in some breathing techniques. They seem to open up the mind to allow a flow and intermixing of past and present experiences. This could be expressed as increasing the flow between the individual mind and the surrounding collective consciousness. This can cut through resistance, enabling the facing of overwhelming past experiences, Such experiences are generally the reason why a person feels psychologically unwell and in need to change. Here again, the way this therapy is conducted in crucial. It is essential that it takes place in the safest possible environment with the help of a well-qualified and experienced therapist. If not, there’s a great risk for negative results. There’s lots of evidence as to the bad effects of recreational drug use and a major reason why psychedelic treatment was banned early on, despite the remarkable results that were recorded. 

*Breathwork is the generic term for breathing techniques such as Pranayama, Chi Gong, Holotropic Breathwork, etc.

**This term was coined by Philosopher David Ray Griffin in the 1970s, to capture Whitehead’s metaphysical world view.

***John Buchanan, PhD, Processing Reality: Finding Meaning in Death, Psychedelics, and Sobriety, Cascade Books, 2022

**** Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, WW Norton & Co, 2006

Article from the Science of Psychotherapy Magazine http://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com

Keywords; Breathwork, Philosophy, Psychedelics