Bioluminescent meditative breathing device

By @rtaylormcknight | Posted: October 06, 2018

The positive physiological effects of meditative breathing – e.g. reduced cortisol levels, a slower heart rate, etc. – are well-documented (1, 2, 3). We are even beginning to unravel the mechanisms underlying the relationship between breathing and higher-order brain function (4).

Notably, many people who engage in a form of meditative breathing do so while participating in a separate action – e.g. yoga, freediving, etc. Committing to a breathing exercise as a standalone activity is much more difficult.

Given this reality, how can we help more people perform meditative breathing at home on a consistent basis?

According to the “Fogg Behavior Model,” motivation, ability and a prompt have to properly align at a specific moment for a behavior to take place.

The "Fogg Behavior Model" created by Dr. BJ Fogg

In the case of meditative breathing at home, sufficient motivation and a prompt are the missing factors.

To address these issues, I built a novel preventive care device.

Increasing motivation

I started off by thinking about how to make the land-based version of my freedive breathe up more enjoyable and relaxing. Can I bring the natural marine environment into the home?

Recently, I had contemplated using bioluminescent dinoflagellates to build a biolamp to reduce the negative health impact of traditional artificial lights and increase wellbeing.

I wondered if there was a way to integrate the glow-in-the-dark plankton with a breathe up.

What if the user conducts the breathe up as a nightly ritual? The user can exhale into an aquarium tube that ends in a container of bioluminescent dinoflagellates. The plankton would light up due to the movement of the water.

It sounded plausible! And cool!

The build

It turns out that it is pretty easy to obtain bioluminescent dinoflagellates. All I needed were $30 and a week of time for the shipping. I also ordered enough nutrients to keep them alive for a few months.

The design of the holding container included a boiling flask and a small tripod with a flexible arm and a clamp.

To keep the liquid dinos from spilling out, I used a stopper in the flask and drilled a hole for the air tubing.

I also cut the tubing in half and added a one-way air valve to prevent a siphon from forming and the water flowing out of the container.

One-way valve


The bioluminescence of the dinos when agitated was fainter than I expected, but still awesome to witness. Unfortunately, it was difficult to capture the tiny light show on camera. Below is a 30 second exposure of the boiling flask with the dinos as the only source of light in the room.

The dinos dance around the container, propelled by the air bubbles.

The first week of tests produced results that were more intriguing than I anticipated. Not only did I feel more relaxed after the breathing exercises and desire to do them more often, I noticed that the plankton influenced my behavior in ways I did not unexpect. Because the plankton was a living organism, I found myself focusing on their wellbeing, too. To help them maintain their natural circadian rhythm, I started turning off the artificial lights in my room earlier in the evening than I otherwise would have. This, in turn, led me to fall asleep sooner and helped address some temporary insomnia I had been experiencing.

Introducing a prompt

As a prompt, I decided to have the dinos text the user at a designated time every night to confirm that the daily breathe up was completed.

I remembered a discussion at work about a service called Twilio. We had considered using it to send breaking news alerts via SMS to our readers.

After checking out Twilio’s documentation and pricing, I signed up for an account and set up the following flow logic:

  • User receives SMS from Twilio: “Hey, buddy. Did you do your breathe up tonight? Text me 1 when you’re finished and 2 if you just need a night off.”
  • User texts back “1”: “Awesome! Rest well, buddy. 💦”
  • User texts back “2”: “No worries. Another time. Rest well, buddy. 💦”

Note: “Buddy” is a gender-neutral term used by divers to refer to their diving partner.

Dino reminder SMS logic flow

Next, I tested out the user experience on my phone by running a version of the command below in terminal on my laptop.

curl -X POST "[email protected]/Executions" -d "To=+13333333333" -d "From=+12222222222" -u $TWILIO_ACCOUNT_SID:$TWILIO_AUTH_TOKEN

Below are texts I exchanged with my Twilio account.

Texts I received via the "Dino flow" configured on Twilio.

Increasing user focus

During my dinoflagellate-based lamp research, I had discovered that the plankton produce their strongest bioluminescence when disturbed “with turbulence stimuli at a single speed.”

This was perfect. I could encourage the user to focus on the quality of the breathing technique by pointing out that the best bioluminescence could only be achieved via a slow and steady exhale.

Plans for future testing

In the near future, I hope to test the device with more people.

Blood pressure and heart rate

I will measure the ability of the device to lower blood pressure and heart rate, recording the relevant data before and after the breathe up with wifi-enabled monitors.

Sleeping patterns

I will measure the ability of the device to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia by recording and analyzing user sleep patterns with a Fitbit or similar wearable.


  • [1] Brown, R. P. and Gerbarg, P. L. (2009), Yoga Breathing, Meditation, and Longevity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172: 54-62. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04394.x
  • [2] J. L. Feldman, C. A. Del Negro, P. A. Gray, Understanding the rhythm of breathing: So near, yet so far. Annu. Rev. Physiol. 75, 423–452 (2013). doi:10.1146/annurev-physiol-040510-130049pmid:23121137
  • [3] Streeter CC, Gerbarg PL, Whitfield TH, et al. Treatment of Major Depressive Disorder with Iyengar Yoga and Coherent Breathing: A Randomized Controlled Dosing Study. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2017;23(3):201-207. doi:10.1089/acm.2016.0140.
  • [4] Yackle K, Schwarz LA, Kam K, et al. Breathing Control Center Neurons that Promote Arousal in Mice. Science (New York, NY). 2017;355(6332):1411-1415. doi:10.1126/science.aai7984.