The Life of Breath : a new project on breathlessness and COPD

Durham University Centre for Medical Humanities is delighted to announce that we will be hosting a new project jointly with the University of Bristol from October 2014.  The project is called ‘The Life of Breath’ and it is the result of a successful joint Senior Investigator Award application to the Wellcome Trust by Jane Macnaughton (Durham) and Havi Carel (Bristol).  This project has been in development for around two years and was stimulated by Jane’s interest in the phenomenology of smoking and Havi’s groundbreaking work on the experience of illness.

Jane and Havi came together sharing a vision of the potential for critically engaged medical humanities to make a difference in understanding an important somatic symptom, breathlessness, and how related clinical conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are investigated and treated.  Breathing is a basic physiological mechanism but it also has enormous cultural, spiritual and emotional meaning.  We talk about a first and last breath as marking the beginning and end of life.  Breath has traditionally been seen as what connects spirit and body and it is strongly affected by mood and emotion.  But despite being so laden with meaning in so many cultures, modern western medicine views it in purely mechanical terms.  We want to study the unexplored richness of breath in culture, and then bring this richness to the clinic, where breathing’s pathological counterpart, breathlessness, is the focus.

Our five year project will start by examining breath and breathlessness in literary and cultural history, philosophy and medical history.  There has been surprisingly little written on breathing and on the symptom of breathlessness from these perspectives.  In the second year we introduce empirical work: a study of ‘aware breathers’ (athletes, singers) and respiratory patients to uncover differences between non-pathological and pathological breathlessness.  We will also conduct an ethnographic study looking at the impact of the clinic culture on breathless patients in terms of their bodies, language, and ways of understanding their condition.  We will interview COPD patients to try to understand the mismatch between measured and experienced breathlessness, a puzzling clinical phenomenon.  As the outputs from humanities research and medical anthropology emerge, in years three and four we will start to explore further with our clinical collaborators how these ideas might inform clinical research and practice.  At the core of our project will be our research group, ‘Breathing Space’, where collaborators, including clinicians and experts by experience, will meet regularly to learn from each others’ perspectives, examine a wide variety of ideas about breath, breathing and breathlessness, and discuss research outputs in an interdisciplinary context.

We are fortunate indeed in having gathered a range of expert collaborators to join our exploration of this fascinating and neglected topic.  They are: Tim Cole, History of Medicine, Bristol; James Dodd, Respiratory Neuroscientist and Clinician, Bristol; Clair Henderson, patient involvement, British Lung Foundation; Alice Malpass, Anthropology, Bristol, Anne Millar, Respiratory Physician, Bristol; Corinne Saunders, English Studies, Durham; Andrew Russell, Anthropology, Durham; Ronit Yeoli-Tlalim, History of Medicine, Goldsmiths; Gareth Williams, Clincial Medicine and History of Medicine, Bristol;  David Swann, Designer, Huddersfield; Veronika Williams, Primary Care Research, Oxford.  We will all be expertly shepherded by Mary Robson, our research group facilitator.  The project will be looking for three postdoctoral associates in literary/cultural studies, history of medicine and anthropology, as well as PhD students in medical humanities and philosophy.

In developing this project at Durham we have had valuable support from the Institute of Advanced Study and the Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing at Durham, and we look forward to the IAS becoming the home for our regular Breathing Space meetings.

We will continue to keep CMH Blog readers posted on the development and progress of the Life of Breath and look forward to hearing from those who have an interest.

6 thoughts on “The Life of Breath : a new project on breathlessness and COPD

  1. I am an (asthmatic) musician and artist undertaking a practice-based PhD exploring philosophical and cultural questions connected to breath. My background is as a professional flute player with specific interest in circular breathing techniques etc. I am based at the University of Kent and Guildhall School of Music. I would be very interested in finding out whether I can engage with this project in any way.

  2. Hello
    Please look at my website under “Singing for the Lungs” for more about my work – I was employed by rb&h Arts in 2008 to set up the original Singing for Breathing project at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, working both one to one with CF patients and in open and closed groups on and off the wards with COPD patients. I worked with Dr Nick Hopkinson delivering initial RCT’s and produced a CD for patients to practice at home, available at

    I went on to become Head of Music Services for London at the music therapy services Nordoff Robbins,where I set up a singing group called Inspire for patients with chronic lung disease, many of whom then also joined a more generic and inclusive community choir I started. For a year I set up and ran Sing for your Lungs at the Whittington hospital in London at the behest of the wonderful respiratory consultant Dr Myra Stern. I have lectured and workshopped Singing for Breathing with medical students doing humanities at Imperial college, London and respiratory nurses and physiotherapists nationally. The British Lung Foundation have asked me to set up and run training programmes for singing leaders to run more Singing for the Lungs groups across the country

    I now work as a music therapist 2 days a week at a high security female prison where I am meeting younger women with both COPD due to chronic drug use as well as many who are breathless due to anxiety

    I have also just started reading your book Havi, “Illness”, which I was introduced to by the Director of Education at Nordoff Robbins (Gary Ansdell) many years ago and it has finally reached the top of my reading list

    I would be delighted to contribute in any way I can be helpful to what you are doing – my forte is getting those who think they can’t sing, not only to sing, but to experience and to become aware of the changes it then brings to body, mind and breath

    Phoene Cave
    Creative Connections to Music & Wellbeing

  3. Hello,

    I am a final year PhD student in Performance Art and Installation at UNSW Art & Design with a background in applied psychology. Previously I established and ran the breath/affect/space focused Wellness program at the University of Newcastle in Australia, which won several awards and external funding.

    My research projects, The Breathing Space Projects, explore how art can open the relationship between breath, anxiety and wonder to transform a sense of self and other. My site-specific work explores the cultural richness of approaches to breath and the senses. It reimagines our perceptions and so is unplugged, at the level of the level of the everyday and tender. The aim is to reach the everyday person with a ‘breathing space’ to reflect on their lives and what they may release to live well in this world.

    I’d be delighted if my work was of interest to you. I am very interested in your project and publications.

    Looking forward to hearing from you,

    Best regards


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