Previous: Macroeconomics: Crash Course Economics #5
Next: White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulae: Crash Course Astronomy #30



View count:4,381,208
Last sync:2023-03-02 14:30
So we all know that breathing is pretty important, right? Today we're going to talk about how it works, starting with the nameless evolutionary ancestor that we inherited this from, continuing to the mechanics of both simple diffusion and bulk flow, as well as the physiology of breathing, and finishing with the anatomy of both the conducting zone and the respiratory zone of your respiratory system.

Pssst... we made flashcards to help you review the content in this episode! Find them on the free Crash Course App!

Download it here for Apple Devices:
Download it here for Android Devices:

Introduction: The First Air-Breathers 00:00
Simple Diffusion 2:44
Bulk Flow 3:59
Mechanics of Breathing 4:30
Anatomy of the Conducting Zone 5:47
Anatomy of Respiratory Zone 7:07
Review 8:33
Credits 8:56


Crash Course is on Patreon! You can support us directly by signing up at

Thanks to the following Patrons for their generous monthly contributions that help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever:

Mark, Jan Schmid, Simun Niclasen, Robert Kunz, Daniel Baulig, Jason A Saslow, Eric Kitchen, Christian, Beatrice Jin, Anna-Ester Volozh, Eric Knight, Elliot Beter, Jeffrey Thompson, Ian Dundore, Stephen Lawless, Today I Found Out, James Craver, Jessica Wode, Sandra Aft, Jacob Ash, SR Foxley, Christy Huddleston, Steve Marshall, Chris Peters


Want to find Crash Course elsewhere on the internet?
Facebook -
Twitter -
Tumblr -
Support Crash Course on Patreon:

CC Kids:
Hank: Let me introduce you to one of the bravest pioneers in the history of life on planet Earth, an organism that blazed the trail for every single vertebra that lives on land today and many that don't. It is one of your most important ancestors. It, well, doesn't have a name, and we don't exactly know what it looked like either, but we do know that about three hundred eighty million years ago this fishy looking thing with big fleshy fins achieved one of the animal kingdoms greatest milestones, breathing air. Sounds simple enough, but believe me it wasn't because for billions of years before this fishy ancestor came around, basically all of life evolved in water. From the very beginning, the earliest, simplest forms of life, like bacteria, extracted oxygen they needed right from the water through their membranes, and they did it through simple diffusion, when a material automatically flows from where it is concentrated, to where it is less concentrated so it balances out. Diffusion works really well and it requires zero effort, but it wasn't gonna cut it in the big leagues. Anything larger than a small worm is simply too big and needs too much oxygen for diffusion to work. So in order to get bigger, early life forms needed a circulatory system that could move bulk amounts of oxygen around faster inside their bodies and a respiratory system to bring more oxygen in contact with their wet membranes. So their respiratory services moved from their outer surfaces to the insides of their bodies. First there were gills, but gills of course still only work inside of water, and a little more than three hundred and eighty million years ago this was starting to lose some of its charm. Earth was getting warmer. The seas were getting shallower, and much of the planet's surface water had lower concentrations of oxygen than it used to. Finally, a humble little lobe-finned fish got fed up, swam up to the water's surface, and started breathing air. It could do this because it had evolved a fancy new interface to move gases between the air and it's cell membranes. I'm talking about lungs, wet lungs. With an efficient new way to take in nearly limitless amounts of oxygen from air, animals were eventually able to get bigger and more diverse over the ages, and now all of us lung-having vertebrae share that common ancestor. For lots of animals, including humans, those lungs come with a bunch of other equipment, like protective ribs, a stiff trachea, and, in mammals, a strong diaphragm, and together they form your respiratory system, which happens to be best friends and business partners with your circulatory system. It's only by working together and using both the bulk flow and simple diffusion of oxygen that they can make possible the process of cellular respiration, in other words, life itself. So a lot improvements have been made to it over the eons, but the respiratory system that you are using right now is your inheritance from that ancient ambitious fish, leader of one of the most anatomical revolutions in the past half million years. 

*Crash Course Intro Music*

Hank: Pretend for a minute that you can't breathe, like you just don't have lungs anymore. You are some bizarre evolutionary oddity, a huge human shaped organism that doesn't have a respiratory system. Instead you get all of your oxygen the way your oldest smallest evolutionary ancestors did, by simple diffusion, or at least you try to get all your oxygen that way. How would it work? Well poorly, that's probably because one of the keys to efficient diffusion of any material is distance. If you want a molecule to diffuse across a space quickly, you want it to be as close to its destination as possible with the fewest obstacles in the way, but for a single molecule of oxygen to diffuse from the air through, say, your scalp, and then go to a neuron deep inside your brain, it would have to move through your skin and then your skull and then your connective tissue and all sorts of things. It would eventually get there, like maybe a month later, but at that point the cell that needed the oxygen in the first place would have, you know, suffocated to death. Basically, obtaining oxygen through diffusion alone is like wanting to go to a party at your friends place across town and then walking twenty miles to get there. You could do it, but it would take forever, and by the time you arrived you'd be all haggard and the party would be over. So diffusion alone isn't enough to get the job done. We do use it, but only when a whole bunch of the materials we need are right up against the tissues that can absorb them. So you know what else we need? Bulk flow.
Bulk flow is like public transportation, it moves large numbers of molecules quickly. Rather than walking the whole way across town, you can hop on a bus with a bunch of other people and get there in twenty minutes. Every time you take a deep breath, you bring in about a hundred quintillion oxygen molecules into your lungs all at once. They're on a bulk flow bus ride, and once those oxygen molecules filter down into the cells in your lungs, they're suddenly very close to the blood they're trying to reach. All they have to do is diffuse across four layers of cell membranes to get from the lung cell into the blood. It's like hopping off the bus and then walking a half a block to your friend's apartment. That's why your respiratory system is the way it is. It's set up to take full advantage of both bulk flow and simple diffusion. The bulk flow part of things is handled by some of your systems biggest and most obvious moving parts, starting with your lungs, which basically operate like a pump or a bellows. They don't have any contractable muscle tissue because they need to be able to expand, so they require outside help in order to move. Enter the diaphragm, a big, thin set of muscles that separates your thorax from your abdomen. When your lungs empty your diaphragm relaxes and looks kind of like an arch pushing up to squish your lungs. You also have the weight of your rib cage pushing on your lungs from the top and sides, and together these forces decrease the volume of your lungs. When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts pulling itself flat and your external intercostal muscles between your ribs contract, they lift the ribs up and out causing the chest cavity to expand. This makes the pressure inside your lungs lower than the air outside your body and since fluids like gases move from areas of high pressure to low pressure, the lungs fill up with outside air. Then the diaphragm relaxes again and weight of the ribs settles in and the pressure inside the lungs becomes higher than the outside air and the air rushes out, and that, my friends, is breathing one oh one. 
Now your respiratory system contains a lot of parts besides your lungs, some prominently displayed on your face, others hidden deep within your chest, and functionally, all of these organs fall into one of two physiological zones. The upper parts that funnel the air in, make up what's known as the conducting zone. It starts with this thing. Your nose is supported by bone and cartilage and the bristly hairs and mucus inside it that help filter out dust and other particles, but it along with your sinuses performs another important function, it warms and moistens incoming air, so it doesn't dry out those sensitive lung cells that must remain wet. Remember moisture is key. We evolved from organisms that lived in water, so just like with our aquatic bacterial ancestors, we need water for oxygen to dissolve into before it can diffuse across the phospholipid bilayer membrane of our cells. Now if you've ever choked on a poorly timed sip of water, you've noticed that you breathe through the same tube that you also move foods and liquids through. This is yet another left over from those first fish lungs which evolved as a branch off the esophagus. Looking back, it was not ideal, but we are stuck with it. So the stuff that you swallow soon encounters the epiglottis, a little trap door of tissue which covers the larynx and directs bites of sandwich and sips of cola towards your esophagus and keeps them out of your lungs. You'll notice that the esophagus that heads to your stomach is nice and flexible, while your trachea or wind pipe is rigid and has prominent rings. That's because your trachea is basically built like a vacuum hose, since the lungs create negative pressure with every breathe, the trachea needs those rings to keep it open. If it were soft and floppy it would collapse every time the pressure dropped, and you wouldn't be able to breathe. from there, the trachea splits in two forming the left and right main bronchi. You can imagine these inner lung parts as sort of an upside down tree. Now we are in the lung tissue and have entered what we call the respiratory zone. This is where the actual gas exchange occurs, and everything you find here has a form to suit that function. So the smaller branches of the upside down tree are bronchioles, which taper down into progressively narrower tubes until they empty into the alveolar ducts and then dead end into tiny alveolar sacs, where the bulk of the gas exchange finally occurs. Because that's where each sac contains a cluster of alveoli, tiny cavities aligned with super thin wet membranes made of simple squamous epithelial tissue. It's here that oxygen molecules dissolve and the wet mucus diffuse across the epithelial cells and then cross the single layer of endothelial cells lining the capillaries to enter the blood stream. And of course it's also where carbon dioxide diffuses out of the blood, and then follows the same route back up to the nose and mouth where it is exhaled. So it's your alveoli where diffusion meets bulk flow because while you're picking up oxygen and dispensing CO2 one molecule at a time, you're doing it in enormous quantities at any given second. Both of your lungs contain about seven hundred million alveoli, which together provide an amazing seventy-five square meters of moist membrane surface area.
So the principles that make respiration possible are relatively simple, diffusion and bulk flow, and so are the mechanisms in your body that use them. It just took us about four hundred million years to figure out how to make it all work, but today you learned how it does work, including the mechanics of both simple diffusion and bulk flow, and the physiology of breathing,and the  anatomy of the conducting zone and the respiratory zone of your respiratory system. Thank you to all of our Patreon patrons who help make Crash Course possible for themselves and for everyone in the world for free with their monthly contributions. If you like Crash Course and you wanna help us keep making videos like this one, you can go to This episode was filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C Kinney Crash Course Studio. It was written by Kathleen Yale. The script was edited by Blake de Pastino, and our consultant is Dr. Brandon Jackson. It was directed and edited by Nicholas Jenkins. The script supervisor was Nicole Sweeney. Our sound designer is Michael Aranda, and the graphics team is Thought Cafe.