The LIfe of Breath  examines historical, philosophical, cultural and anthropological aspects of breathing and breathlessness.

The LIfe of Breath examines historical, philosophical, cultural and anthropological aspects of breathing and breathlessness.


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

‘The Life of Breath’ is a new five year project jointly hosted by The Centre for Medical Humanities and the University of Bristol. 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 was 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. 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.

Research Aims

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.

Project Collaborators

We are fortunate indeed in having gathered a range of expert collaborators to join our exploration of this fascinating and neglected topic.

  • James Dodd, Respiratory Neuroscientist and Clinician, Bristol
  • Alice Malpass, Anthropology, Bristol
  • Anne Millar, Respiratory Physician, Bristol
  • Corinne Saunders, English Studies, Durham
  • Andrew Russell, Anthropology, Durham
  • Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, History of Medicine, Goldsmiths
  • Gareth Williams, Clinical Medicine and History of Medicine, Bristol
  • David Swann, Designer, Huddersfield
  • Veronika Williams, Primary Care Research, Oxford.

We are also delighted to have invaluable input from regional representatives of the British Lung Foundation: Bev Wears (Support & Development Manager, North Region) and Justin Parsons (Service Development Manager, South-West Region). We will all be expertly shepherded by Mary Robson, our research group facilitator.

Please follow the link to for news and blogs relating to the project and its progress.

Contact details

Centre for Medical Humanities
Caedmon Building
Leazes Road Durham