Making the invisible visible, a review of the Life of Breath launch event.

Life of Breath logo_Full colourSarah McLusky – Project Manager for the Life of Breath project reports on the Life of Breath Launch event:

Guests gathered at Durham University’s Joachim Room on 23 September to celebrate the launch of Life of Breath, a Wellcome Trust funded project exploring breathing and breathlessness. Invisibility is a powerful metaphor for breathing, breathlessness and the millions of people living with respiratory illness, so the theme ‘Making the Invisible Visible’ concisely sums up the Life of Breath project aims.

We have all experienced what breathing feels like but, except for the occasional frosty morning, we don’t see our breath. As well as being unseen, most of the time our breath is invisible to our consciousness, taken for granted. Invisibility is also a powerful metaphor for those living with respiratory illness. For example, despite being the UKs fifth biggest killer, most people have never heard of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)1 meaning it is under-diagnosed, under-researched and hard to treat. This leads to a sense of powerlessness amongst patients and clinicians, isolation and consequently, social invisibility.2

The theme ‘Making the Invisible Visible’ was carefully crafted into every aspect the launch event by programmer Mary Robson. Charlotte Roberts revealed how, if you know where to look, traces of lung disease can be found in archaeological remains. Through visual art and sculpture, artist Jayne Wilton seeks to give physical form to both inhaled and exhaled breath. The focus for clinician Miriam Johnson was the need to consider the impact of breathlessness on quality of life. Peter Garratt explored breath-related themes in literature, both explicit and woven into the characters or plot. Finally Gaynor Williams and James Edwards, members of Breath Easy Darlington, vividly and poignantly described what it is like to live with a lung condition.

A remarkable aspect of breath is that, as well as keeping us alive, it can be made ‘visible’ through sound. And that resulting sound can convey meaning and emotion, lift our spirits or fuel our anxieties. The event was punctuated by encounters with the breath given form through spoken word, poetry, sound and music, culminating in the glorious vocals of the group Renaissance.

With the project well and truly launched, the Life of Breath research team must now rise to the challenge of ‘Making the Invisible Visible’. To find ways to of elucidating the experience of breathlessness, to understand the history and cultural context of breath in wellness and illness, to translate these findings into meaningful interventions and insight which might help to improve quality of life for the invisible millions living with lung disease. Watch this space!

Our film-maker Susi Arnott has done an excellent job of highlighting some of the key moments and messages from the day. The video can be seen via our website and YouTube channel. I hope you find it interesting and please do share it with others.

About Life of Breath

Life of Breath is a five-year Wellcome Trust funded project to examine breathing and breathlessness through the interface between arts, humanities and clinical practice. It is led by Jane Macnaughton at Durham University and Havi Carel at the University of Bristol. To find out more about the project please visit or follow us on Twitter @lifeofbreath. To see some highlights from the event search for #MTIVDurham on Twitter.


  1. British Lung Foundation (2007) ‘Invisible Lives: COPD – finding the missing millions’
  2. Carel, HH, Macnaughton, J & Dodd, J (2015) ‘Invisible suffering: breathlessness in and beyond the clinic’. The Lancet Respiratory medicine, 3:278-279

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