The aim of this experiment was to test the immediate effects of slow-paced breathing on executive function. Slow-paced breathing is suggested to increase cardiac vagal activity, and the neurovisceral integration model predicts that higher cardiac vagal activity leads to better executive functioning. In total, 78 participants (41 men, 37 women; Mage= 23.22 years) took part in two counterbalanced experimental conditions: a 3 × 5 min slow-paced breathing condition and a television viewing control condition. After each condition, heart rate variability was measured and participants performed three executive function tasks: the color-word match Stroop (inhibition), the automated operation span task (working memory), and the modified card sorting task (cognitive flexibility). Results showed that performance on executive function tasks was better after slow-paced breathing compared to control, with higher scores observed for Stroop interference accuracy, automated operation span score, and perseverative errors, but not Stroop interference reaction times. This difference in executive function between experimental conditions was not mediated by cardiac vagal activity. Therefore, findings only partially align with predictions of the neurovisceral integration model. Slow-paced breathing appears a promising technique to improve immediate executive function performance. Further studies are recommended that address possible alternative underlying mechanisms and long-term effects.
- heart rate variability
- neurovisceral integration model
- parasympathetic nervous system
- vagus nerve