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Durham University

Institute for Medical Humanities

Life of Breath


Life of Breath was a five year (2015-20) research project funded by the Wellcome Trust. It is led jointly by Prof Jane Macnaughton (Durham University) and Prof Havi Carel (University of Bristol). The Life of Breath team includes researchers from a number of different subjects including medicine, philosophy, anthropology, history, arts and literature. We also work with the British Lung Foundation, people affected by lung disease, healthcare professionals and people who use their breath in interesting ways (e.g. musicians).

Exploring Breathing and Breathlessness: Our Approach

Breathing isn’t just a bodily function. It allows us to speak, laugh and sing. It connects us to the outside world. It reflects our state of mind and can be consciously controlled. Breath has inspired art and literature. For many it has spiritual significance. The personal and cultural meaning of breathing goes beyond the simple act of keeping us alive.

Breathlessness is also a very personal experience. It can be fleeting or a sign of something more serious. Some people deal with breathlessness better than others. As a result, doctors find it hard to measure and difficult to treat. Those living with breathlessness are often forgotten. We want to help people live well with breathlessness.Please follow the link to for news and blogs relating to the project and its progress.

Our interdisciplinary team and collaborators are working together to find new ways of answering questions about breathing and breathlessness and their relationship to both illness and wellbeing. Our research questions included:

  • What does breathlessness feel like? Does it feel different when you are ill?
  • How do our thoughts, emotions and beliefs affect our breathing?
  • Why do people hide their breathlessness?
  • What can we learn about breath from different cultures?
  • How is breath represented in literature, art, film and music?
  • Can the ways people thought about breath in the past help us today?
  • Would better ways of describing or visualising breathlessness help patients and doctors?
  • Why is inhaling substances like cigarette smoke pleasurable?
  • Are industries that affect our lung health being held to account?

Read more about our work here and in our blog.

To watch a 2 minute film about our work made by the Wellcome Trust, please click here.

If you experience breathlessness or practise breath control and would like to take part in our research please contact us.

Download this information as a leaflet.