Why do we breathe?

This thought came to me as I was working on a preceding article. Why is it we breathe? Oh sure there are physical reasons why we take every breath but how does our brain know we need to breathe? How do we explain that kind of knowledge? This article will be an examination of the physical mechanism of human breathing as well as a discussion of what makes us take our breath.

In order to set the stage for the question of why we breathe, we must first answer how we breathe. Breathing is a key component of what makes an organism or a human alive. Once breathing stops, death follows quickly.  Breathing occurs through the mouth and nose. Air enters through both openings and passes through the esophagus down to the lungs. The lungs are what drive respiration. They do this by expanding and contracting to suck air in and blow it out. However, they cannot do this on their own. A special organ called the diaphragm expands and contracts to create space in the chest for the lungs to expand and contract. Even this would not be enough without the intercostal muscles in the chest. These pull upward on the ribs when the diaphragm expands, creating more space in the chest for the lungs to fill. When the diaphragm contracts, the intercostal muscles relax and the chest contracts, helping the lungs force air out as the body exhales. The entire process is under the control of the Central Nervous System, and is controlled involuntarily.  Breathing happens even when you aren’t thinking about it. Right now, you’re probably consciously noticing your breathing because you’re reading an article about it, but it happens all the time, even when you are asleep, without you having to remember to do it.

Now that we know how the body takes each breath, we need to consider why the body breathes. This devolves into two questions. The first one is the easier to answer. Why does the body breathe is a fairly easy question to answer. The design of the body requires air. Air, specifically oxygen, is required for many bodily processes including cellular respiration. The body needs to breathe to live. It cannot exist in a living state without breathing.

However, while explaining how the body breathes and why the body needs to breathe are easy,  explaining why the body knows it needs to breathe is much harder. It requires explaining the Central Nervous System and why it works. The brain controls the autonomic nervous system, but it does so without thought. Typing this article requires thought. Breathing, digesting food, healing injuries and so on do not. How does the brain know to do those things, specifically breathe in this instance? The answer is part science part philosophy.

While a special part of your brain controls your physical ability to breathe, the brain knows before a baby is born how to breathe and that breathing is necessary.  Scientists struggle to explain this innate knowledge.  Evolutionists struggle to explain its origin. The brain just somehow knows to breathe.  This is a big accomplishment for a little organ that operates solely on the basis of random chemical reactions without any features of design at all. While evolutionists will claim that last sentence as truth, breathing demonstrates the opposite.  No random chemical reaction could generate the brain’s ability to regulate breathing. Something else must be in play.

The something else I referred to above is unknown for certain. It is not instinct. Instinct describes voluntary unlearned behavior. Breathing is involuntary. Instead it must be hardwired into the brain. The brain literally has a compulsion to cause the body to breathe. Even in the some of the most severe cases of mental illness, the body still breathes. It is not the chemical reactions that cause breathing to continue. Instead some force, something deeper than chemical reactions, causes the brain to continue to breathe. Science, chemical reactions and evolution cannot explain this.

While science and evolution fail to explain the brain’s hardwired ability to control breathing, the Bible offers a clue. Isaiah 42:5, in describing God, says “Thus saith God the LORD, he that created the heavens, and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth, and that which cometh out of it; he that giveth breath unto the people upon it, and spirit to them that walk therein:” Note the end of the verse says that God gives breath to the people of this world. Putting this in a practical sense, it would appear that God has built into the human brain the ability to regulate breathing continuously.  This would explain where the ability came from. It is not the result of random chemical reactions. Instead God built it into the brain from the beginning

Explaining why we breathe requires leaving the realm of science and entering the realm of religion. Evolutionary explanations for the hard coded knowledge in the human brain simply do not add up. As Christians, we can trust what the Bible says without question, but the fact that it makes much more sense to believe a higher power hard wired the brain to breathe than to believe it happened by accident does not hurt.


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