The first Vancouver class will be held on Friday May 20th at Yoga on 7th – a beautiful heritage building at 156 E 7th Avenue, a block north of Broadway and Main. Class begins at 7:30pm and goes to 9:30pm. Two other classes will be held on June 3rd and 17th at the same location and time. In these 2 hour workshops we will be discussing the science of stress, how it affects the organs and nervous system, and how certain breathing techniques can influence our physiology to counter that stress and create a sense of relaxation in a hectic world. We can actively strengthen our body’s innate ability to heal and rejuvenate through practicing these techniques. Hope to see you there!
Two more Éiriú Eolas classes are being held in Surrey in May. The first is Saturday May 14th, and the second is Saturday May 28th. Both classes are from 11am-1pm, and both are at Endless Shore Yoga (upstairs in room 222 at 2570 King George Blvd. in South Surrey, British Columbia). In these 2 hour workshops we will be discussing the science of stress, how it affects the organs and nervous system, and how certain breathing techniques can influence our physiology to counter that stress and create a sense of relaxation in a hectic world. We can actively strengthen our body’s innate ability to heal and rejuvenate through practicing these techniques. Hope to see you there!
You’ve heard the expressions: “He lost his nerve;” “He doesn’t have the stomach for it;” “No guts.” “As it turns out, those expressions are anatomically accurate,” says Dr. Stephen Josephs. “The nerve that you lose when you’re afraid is the vagus nerve, which runs from the belly to the brain. It transmits messages about whether the world is a safe or dangerous place. What we now know about the functioning of this nerve has direct applications making leaders more effective and all of us happier and more courageous.”
Josephs, author of the new book, Dragons at Work, teaches executives how to reliably create states of optimal performance by achieving control of the vagus nerve. When making decisions about resources, leading teams or talking with the board of directors, courage and poise in the face of rapidly changing business environments are essential for a leader.
“Rather than losing your nerve, you can strengthen it. Courage is a skill you can learn and a capacity you can systematically build. The vagus nerve has been linked to everything from digestion issues to stress and depression,” he says. “A benefit of inner body balance includes the projection of true poise; authentic confidence from a leader is what can create a business culture that breeds financial success because employees and clients trust the person in charge to make important decisions from a stable perspective.”
Using specific techniques from martial arts, meditation and other mind-body disciplines, Dr. Josephs guides executives to build resourcefulness and courage as a habitual response to challenge.
He offers tips for business executives to promote a healthy, vagus nerve-friendly environment:
• When angry or afraid, take a high quality breath: People might tell an agitated person to “take a breath,” but it’s the quality of the breath that makes all the difference. For someone who has practiced breathing has wired in an automatic relaxation response, one breath immediately begins to calm them. To practice do this when you’re not under stress: As you inhale, relax your belly and the muscles of your torso, and soften your muscles on the inhale. On the exhale become still. Widen your peripheral vision – take in more of the room, and rest in a more wide open awareness. At this point, your vagus nerve will be sending you messages that the world is a safe place and your ability to respond intelligently will be greatly enhanced.
• Move forward with a relaxed vagus nerve. Now, in a calmer, more resourceful and masterful state, you can apply a saner perspective to a variety of tasks: connect with employees; complete the agenda; let good ideas emerge from employees, with less pressure from management, so they affirm their own competencies. Acknowledge what’s already working well by giving individuals and teams credit. Enjoy your work, knowing that whatever emerges, you can handle it.
• Get over thyself and lighten up: See how much you can accomplish with the least amount of force. And drop self-importance. Remember, unless you’re Donald Trump or Miss Piggy and self-aggrandizement is part of your brand identity, it’s bad for business. It introduces unnecessary noise into the system and distorts communication. Drop self-importance and you’ll hear critical bad news faster, and people will trust that you can handle it.
Our bodies aren’t shy about telling us that we are stressed out! Muscle tension, backaches, stomach upset, headaches, burnout and other illness states are ways in which the body signals to us the need to relax. Rather than run for that anti-anxiety medication, we can utilize our easiest, natural defense against stress: our breathing. The way we breathe can affect our emotions and mental states as well as determine how we physically respond to stress.
Fight or Flight Response vs. Relaxation Response
The general physiological response to stress is called the stress response or “fight or flight” response. When we experience stress, hormones activated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system flood our bloodstream to signal a state of readiness against potential threats to our well being. While these hormones serve to help us act quickly and with great strength during emergency situations, they exemplify the concept that there can be “too much of a good thing.” Chronic stress results in excess release of stress hormones, which can cause immune-system malfunction, gastrointestinal issues, and blood vessel deterioration, among other health complications. Over time, such symptoms can evolve into degenerative diseases like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
We can help preserve and enhance our health, though, by refusing to fall victim to chronic release of stress hormones, even if we are not able to control when or how stressful situations challenge us. We can learn to effectively manage our physiological reaction to stressors by teaching the body to induce a relaxation response. A relaxation response counteracts the effects of the fight or flight response by helping to boost immune system function, reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels, and protect tissues from damage caused by stress-hormones.
Breathing and Relaxation Response
The way we breathe affects our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the branches of which signal automatic physiological reactions in the body, like the fight or flight and relaxation responses. ANS activity is outside of our conscious control. The ANS is responsible for managing our breathing, heart rate, body temperature, digestion, and other basic processes necessary for survival. While the sympathetic branch of the ANS initiates the stress response, the parasympathetic branch induces a relaxation response. Our somatic nervous system, over which we do have conscious control, makes possible the movements of our eyes, limbs, and mouths, for example, as well as how (not whether) we breathe. Thus, we can, through somatic manipulation of our breath, affect which ANS branch remains active, especially during moments of stress.
One of the best means of inducing a relaxation response is through diaphragmatic breathing: inhaling deeply through the chest and virtually into the stomach. Engaging the diaphragm may be the key to inducing a relaxation response through deep breathing because the diaphragm’s close proximity to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve which supplies approximately 75 percent of all parasympathetic fibers to the rest of the body, and may be stimulated through diaphragmatic movement. Conversely, thoracic breathing that is limited to the chest cavity is associated with the sympathetic branch stress response.
Self-Empowerment through Breathing
Situations may catalyze stress for us when we are uncertain about them or unable to control their outcome. We may feel helpless, overwhelmed, fearful, or forced into stifling our true feelings, and may experience additional anxiety over our inability to control the resulting hormonal fight or flight response. The key to stress management is recognition that while we may not be able to control the stressor, we can always control our reaction to it. We have choices: whether to relax through diaphragmatic breathing techniques until we feel ready to make beneficial decisions, or to just react while on sympathetic branch automatic pilot. Even if we don’t find a solution to the stressful situation, choosing to take time out to breathe protects our bodies from detrimental effects of stress.
Upon experiencing fear or anxiety, our diaphragm involuntarily flattens and we breathe in a shallow manner as our body prepares for action. Armed with the knowledge that we can create a counter-response by breathing deeply, we can change any automatic course of action. When a stressor engages us, we can consciously control the speed and fullness with which we inhale, trusting that a relaxation response will happen as long as we keep breathing in this manner and do not lose patience. Recognizing the need to breathe diaphragmatically is half the battle; actually doing it is what empowers and frees us.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Techniques
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie down on your back or sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your back as straight as possible (maybe against a wall) and close your eyes. Place your hands on your abdomen. Slowly inhale, filling your lungs and what seems like your stomach, to the point where your hands rise with the breath. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then slowly exhale completely. Repeat this process for many breaths, savoring the recognition that you are sending life-sustaining oxygen to all the cells of your body.
One of the keys to creating a relaxation response is to “be the breath.” Focusing on the breath helps you be present. When thoughts enter your mind, acknowledge them, let them go, then refocus the mind on the sound of your breath. Perhaps visualize a relaxing scene or imagine continuous ocean waves slowly rolling into the shoreline. Maybe listening to peaceful music or repeating a mantra in your head that brings you serenity will help you free your mind of distracting thoughts. Your memory is another tool you have to facilitate relaxation. Recalling a time of great happiness can help you replace negative feelings with pleasant ones. Tapping into your particular spiritual belief system at this time might also help you relax; some people find that saying a prayer while breathing deeply can help decrease stress.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Offers Multidimensional Benefits
Bridging the mind and body through deep breathing is a multidimensional experience. Because the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the ANS are regulated by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, rather than neural impulses from the brain, brain stem and spinal cord, these branches are influenced by our emotional responses to environmental stimuli. Neurotransmitters create physiological reactions by relaying information based upon our feelings to various cells within the body. The digestive tract is especially rich with neurotransmitter receptor sites, which may explain “gut feelings.”
Fear, for example, initiates thoracic breathing associated with sympathetic branch activity. When we breathe in a shallow manner, we utilize only half of the alveoli (air filled sacs) in our lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing employs all the alveoli in our lungs while helping the body and mind relax. By repeatedly expanding our lungs to full capacity, we improve our metabolism by increasing oxygen supply to the rest of the body, promoting detoxification in the lungs, and enhancing digestion.
We may also be able to change the emotions which engendered the stress response by releasing their power over us through the breath. Clear thinking and creative decision-making may follow and lead to more positive emotions. The multidimensional effects of deep breathing illustrate the complex connections between the mind and the body and enhance our understanding of stress-related disease prevention and treatment.
When It Comes to Stress, Be Your Breath
The solution to stress lies within us. Nature has given us a defense mechanism with which to combat the physical effects of stress: parasympathetic nervous system activity catalyzed by diaphragmatic breathing. While breathing alone may not resolve the issue stressing us, it can empower us to healthfully adapt on mental, emotional, physical, and even spiritual levels.
Consciously breathing is a core element of mind-body philosophies such as yoga,meditation and Tai Chi (diaphragmatic breathing as described in this article most closely resembles meditation). Mind-body disciplines, such as Yoga and Tai Chi, which embrace specific postures and/or fluid movements offer added benefits of improved balance, flexibility and circulation. Regularly practicing diaphragmatic breathing through any mind-body technique can help us establish a relaxation routine. When something is routine, we can “just do it” (i.e. let our thoughts go because we don’t need to think so much about what we are doing). A movement–based breathing practice may be the best means of relaxation for more physically active people, and can be a great way for less-active folks to get some exercise.
For some, spirituality may permeate the mind-body breathing practice. The role of spirituality in stress management may relate to how we perceive situations beyond our control. Wayne Dyer, an inspiration guru, lectures and writes that we are eternal spiritual beings who are having temporary human experiences, which seems like another way of saying “don’t sweat the small stuff.” Believing in a higher power (whatever that means to us individually) can relieve us of the perceived burden of always having to handle things on our own.
Learning to cultivate a relaxation response may involve trying various methods until you discover the one that works for you. Finding a technique that you enjoy is the key to making it a lifestyle habit. When you feel the effects of stress… just breathe.
References and Resources:
How often do you have to deal with anxiety in your everyday life?
If you find yourself worrying too much or getting caught into non-stopping irrational thoughts or even feeling nausea, chest pain and heart palpitations then this article is for you.
You are about to learn a simple yet very effective technique to deal with anxiety naturally by stimulating your vagus nerve. This powerful technique can be used to relieve stress and anxiety anywhere and anytime; at home, when commuting and of course at those horrible work meetings.
Did you know that the FDA approved a surgically implanted device that is successfully treating depression by periodically stimulating the vagus nerve?
But hopefully you won’t need surgery. You can enjoy the benefits of vagus nerve stimulation by adopting some simple breathing techniques.
So what is that vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the most important element of the parasympathetic nervous system (the one that calms you down by controlling your relaxation response).
It originates from the brainstem and it is “wandering” all the way down, into the belly, spreading fibers to the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and glands that produce anti-stress enzymes and hormones (like Acetylcholine, Prolactin, Vasopressin, Oxytocin), influencing digestion, metabolism and of course the relaxation response.
Vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection, and it is the cabling behind your heart’s emotions and gut instincts. The key to manage your mind state and your anxiety levels lies on being able to activate the calming nervous pathways of your parasympathetic system.
You cannot control this part of the nervous system on demand, but you can indirectly stimulate your vagus nerve by:
Strengthening this living nervous system can pay great dividends, and the best tool to achieve that is by training your breath.
Breathe with your diaphragm
Now it’s time to put this concept into practice. The first thing you need to do is breathe using your diaphragm (abdominal breathing). This is the foundation of proper breathing and anxiety relief.
The diaphragm is your primary breathing muscle. It is belled shaped and when you inhale it patterns out (or should flatten out), acting as piston and creating vacuum on you thoracic cavity, so your lungs can expand and air gets in.
On the other side it creates pressure, pushing the viscera down and out, expanding your belly. That’s why good breathing practice is described as abdominal breathing or belly breathing.
Breathe with the glottis partially closed
Glottis is at the back of your tongue and it is closed when you are holding your breath. Here we want have it partially closed. It is that feeling you have in your throat while you exhale and make a “Hhhhh” sound in order to clean your glasses, but without actually making the sound.
It also resembles the way you breathe when you are in the verge of sleep and you are about to snore a little bit.
By controlling the glottis you are:
Try it right now
Now it’s time to put all this theory into action by practicing this 7 – 11 diaphragmatic breathing technique.
This is one breath cycle; go for 6 – 12 cycles and observe the results.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The more you practice the more effective this technique will be.
Eventually, when your newly acquired breathing skill is established and abdominal breathing becomes a habit, you’ll find your body constantly operating at a much lower stress level.
You will also notice (or sometimes you will not even notice it) how your breath responses to stressful situations; your body will be conditioned to automatically control your breath and by this, your stress and anxiety.
One of the keys to deal with anxiety is to learn how to stimulate your vagus nerve through proper breathing. The vagus nerve acts as the mind-body connection and controls your relaxation response. You can stimulate your vagus nerve by practicing diaphragmatic breathing with the glottis partially closed. Use your dead time to practice this technique consistently, turn it to a habit and you’ll be amazed by the results.
Bill Walker is an article writer and key founder of the AntiAnxietyWaves project. AntiAnxietyWaves offers information, guidance and techniques to deal with anxiety while involved into dead time activities (e.g. commuting time, waiting time etc). Help yourself to deal with anxiety by downloading this (free) pdf guide along with some unique anti-anxiety relaxation recordings at antianxietywaves.com/deal-with-anxiety
Don’t procrastinate with your anxiety, please take action now; if you don’t take even a small step to deal with anxiety today, you probably won’t do it tomorrow.
The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music.
Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.
Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.
Your body’s levels of stress hormones are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) . The ANS has two components that balance each other, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).
The SNS turns up your nervous system. It helps us handle what we perceive to be emergencies and is in charge of the flight-or-fight response.
The PNS turns down the nervous system and helps us to be calm. It promotes relaxation, rest, sleep, and drowsiness by slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing, constricts the pupils of our eyes, increases the production of saliva in our mouth, and so forth.
The vagus nerve is the nerve that comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxation response. And this nervous system uses the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. If your brain cannot communicate with your diaphragm via the release of acetylcholine from the vagus nerve (for example, impaired by botulinum toxin), then you will stop breathing and die.
Acetylcholine is responsible for learning and memory. It is also calming and relaxing, which is used by vagus nerve to send messages of peace and relaxation throughout your body. New research has found that acetylcholine is a major brake on inflammation in the body . In other words, stimulating your vagus nerve sends acetylcholine throughout your body, not only relaxing you but also turning down the fires of inflammation which is related to the negative effects from stress.
Exciting new research has also linked the vagus nerve to improved neurogenesis, increased BDNF output (brain-derived neurotrophic factor is like super fertilizer for your brain cells) and repair of brain tissue, and to actual regeneration throughout the body.
As you get older, your immune system produces more inflammatory molecules, and your nervous system turns on the stress response, promoting system breakdown and aging.
That’s not just talk. It’s backed by scientific studies.
For example, Kevin Tracey, the director of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered how the brain controls the immune system through a direct nerve-based connection.
He describes this as the inflammatory reflex (i). Simply put, it is the way the immune system responds to the mind.
Let me explain.
You immune system is controlled by a nerve call the vagus nerve.
But this isn’t just any nerve.
It is the most important nerve coming from the brain and travels to all the major organs.
And you can activate this nerve — through relaxation, meditation, and other ancient practices, such as the Mayan system of Light Language, combined with Vagus Nerve Activation Techniques given recently by the Group & Steve Rother, the Vagus Nerve can be activated and worked with energetically through geometry, frequency, color, and light.
What’s the benefit of that?
Well, by activating the vagus nerve, you can control your immune cells, reduce inflammation, and even prevent disease and aging!
It’s true. By creating positive brain states — as meditation masters have done for centuries — you can switch on the vagus nerve and control inflammation.
You can actually control your gene function by this method. Activate the vagus nerve, and you can switch on the genes that help control inflammation. Inflammation is one of the central factors of disease and aging.
Even more fascinating was the discovery that our bodies can regenerate at any age.
Diane Krause, MD, PhD, from Yale University discovered that our own innate adult stem cells (cells that can turn into any cell in the body from our bone marrow) could be transformed into liver, bowel, lung, and skin cells. (ii)
This is a phenomenal breakthrough.
It means that we have the power to create new cells and renew our own organs and tissues at any age.
And how are these stem cells controlled?
You guessed it: the vagus nerve.
For example, Theise et al.  have found that stems cells are directly connected to the vagus nerve. Activating the vagus nerve can stimulate stem cells to produce new cells and repair and rebuild your own organs.
So relaxation — a state of calm, peace, and stillness – can activate the vagus nerve.
And the vagus nerve, in turn, activates your stem cells to regenerate and renew your tissues and organs.
Scientists have even shown how meditation makes the brain bigger and better.
They’ve mapped out the brain function of “professionalmeditators” by bringing Tibetan lamas trained in concentration and mental control into the laboratory.
The result? They found higher levels of gamma brain waves and thicker brain cortexes (the areas associated with higher brain function) in meditators. (iii)
Relaxation can have other powerful effects on our biology.
In biology, being a complex system that can adapt to its environment and that is resilient and flexible is critical to health.
The same is true for us.
The more complex and resilient we are, the healthier we are.
Take, for example, our heartbeat.
Its complexity is called heart rate variability (HRV) or beat-to-beat variability. The more complex your HRV, the healthier you are. The least complex heart rate is the worst — a flat line.
So what does this have to do with relaxation?
The HRV is also controlled by the vagus nerve.
As you can see, turning on the relaxation response and activating that vagus nerve is critical to health.
Activating the Vagus Nerve Will:
* Reduce inflammation
* Help regenerate your organs and cells by activating stem cells
* Increase your heart rate variability
* Thicken your brain (which normally shrinks with aging).
* Boost immune function
* Modulate your nervous system
* Reduce depression and stress
* Enhance performance
* Improve your quality of life
Not bad for just learning to chill out!
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who discovered telomeres, explained that, ultimately, they become so short that the end of our DNA unravels and we can no longer replicate our cells, so they die.
Remarkably, mental stress produces a more rapid shortening of the telomeres — and leads to faster aging.
What’s even more remarkable?
In a study of caregivers of sick patients, the health of the caregivers’ telomeres was determined by their attitude!
It sounds impossible, but it’s true.
The caregivers who felt the care to be a burden had shorter telomeres, while those who saw their work as an opportunity to be compassionate had no shortening. (iv)
The Dalai Lama said that the seat of compassion is actually biological and — necessary for survival.
Perhaps the development of compassion and wisdom in coping with unfavorable life conditions is the true key to longevity.
It just may be that working to understand our true nature through the cultivation of our minds and hearts with positive practices like meditation or similar techniques is critical to health and longevity.
The ways we can change our bodies through changing our minds is not longer a theory.
There is a new scientific language to understand how the qualities of the mind control the body through effects on the vagus nerve, immune cells, stem cells, telomeres, DNA, and more.
Remember, your body has all the resources and infinitely adaptable systems to self-regulate, repair, regenerate, and thrive.
You simply have to learn how to work with your body, rather than against it. Then you can have a healthy, thriving life – and live out your full lifespan, which can be as high as 120+ years!
But here’s something even cooler – the research that Dacher Ketlner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley is doing shows that stimulating that vagus nerve is not only good for you – it’s good for the planet!
“Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.”
There you go. Do it for love.
Have you heard about Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory? The theory, already 20 years old, replaces our old notions of how the sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic nervous systems (rest and recuperation) help to keep us calm, alert and safe. The area covered by Polyvagal Theory is huge. It impacts the way we understand our nervous system, senses, emotions, social self and behaviors. We see diagnoses like autism, sensory modulation disorder, borderline personality and others, in a new light.
Polyvagal Theory claims that the nervous system employs a hierarchy of strategies to both regulate itself and to keep us safe in the face of danger. In fact, it’s all about staying safe.
Our “highest” level strategy is a mechanism Porges calls social engagement. It is a phenomenal system – connecting the social muscles of the face (eyes, mouth and middle ear) with the heart. You knew that your heart came alive with social interaction, and it’s true! This system is regulated through a myelinated branch of the vagus nerve. In evolutionary terms, this is our most evolved strategy (mammals only) for keeping ourselves safe. We use this all the time to clear up misunderstandings, get help, plead for forgiveness, and so on.
The next mechanism, or strategy, is fight or flight. It’s regulated by the sympathetic nervous system. This system is our fall-back strategy when social engagement isn’t a good fit. (Think of seeing someone sneaking up on you!) Note that freeze is not a part of fight or flight.
Our freeze option is primal and is a remnant of our reptilian past. Freeze is a great strategy for turtles and lizards, but it’s usually a bad idea for humans – think of fainting. Therefore, we typically use it last, when social engagement and fight/flight aren’t going to work for us. But there are good uses for freeze. During severe injury, it shuts us down and turns off our registration of pain. We also make use of it during sex, and it helps women regulate pain and response to pain during labor.
Now these systems appear to work in tandem. The social engagement system puts the brakes on the other (fight, flight, freeze) strategies, thus keeping our heart and body active while we work through a situation. The social engagement system will release the brakes to engage a different response to the environment (i.e. running) if engagement doesn’t help to get us into a safe situation.
What Can Go Wrong
We want our nervous system to operate using the social exchange most of the time. It is our most evolved way of being. It is restful and healthy because it allows our gut and other organs to do their job uninterrupted.
However, some of us are programmed from an early age to work from a fight/flight mode. Think of people who are sensory sensitive and recoil from sound, touch, smell or taste. Think of people with autism (in this case, the face to heart connection is not working). Think of people with borderline personality, depression and perhaps other disorders, too. When we are not able to work from our social engagement strategy, then we revert to a modified fight/flight strategy, which puts us in high alert. If we use too much of the fight/flight or freeze strategies, we may end up with gut issues because the gut comes to a halt and we stop digesting food during fight/flight activation.
The Polyvagal Theory has gained great acceptance over the years as pieces of it are shown to hold under laboratory findings. From a psychological viewpoint, it provides us with a rich understanding of self-regulation in the body. From a sensory processing viewpoint, it informs our understanding of sensory modulation.
If you are unfamiliar with the topic, check out the many articles on Dr.Porges’ website. The most comprehensive article is The Polyvagal Perspective, and it is published here on the NIH Public Access site. It contains the physiological underpinnings of the theory as well as perspectives on development, emotions, trauma and many other topics. There is a short video of it here.
Two researchers looked at a biological marker of the social exchange system, RSA, in typical children and in children with sensory modulation issues. RSA is the measure of high-frequency fluctuation in the heart between heart beats. It is a window into the social exchange system. The researchers found that children with sensory modulation issues have a lower level of RSA than their peers, meaning that these children are better prepared to put the breaks on social strategies and instead use fight-or-flight strategies.
As part of the study, the children were (each in turn) given a sensory challenge. The chairs they were seated on tilted backwards unexpectedly. The level of RSA was monitored in each child throughout the incident. The RSA of typical children dropped quickly and then stayed low for a short time. The children with poor sensory modulation skills had a very brief drop of RSA and a quick rebound to their RSA baseline.
This implies that children with sensory modulation symptoms use different strategies to handle safety-related situations than their peers. At this time, it is harder to draw greater conclusions since we do not have an easy-access window into the fight/flight system or the freeze system. With time, we’ll get a better understanding of this. The article can be found here.
Perhaps the most interesting new work making use of the Polyvagal Theory is the work of A. D. (Bud) Craig. Mapping our emotions, this is what he found. (Read about it here.)
Emotions arise from feelings in our organs and gut. The feelings are sent via the vagus nerve to the Anterior Insular Cortex (AIC) in the brain. (There’s a lot going on in the vagus nerve – think of it as a cable with lots of separate wires.) The AIC captures feelings over time and stores them as snapshots of feelings. This is our working emotional memory. These feelings are massaged and integrated with the social exchange to give us both an emotional response to the world around us as well as a safety-driven strategy.
Think of this: I am relaxing in a lounge chair on the beach. I feel safe. Suddenly, a beach ball hits me. My fight or flight instinct kicks it and the sympathetic nervous system stops everything that’s happening (i.e. digestion) in my organs and gut. The gut passes the feeling of stoppage as “alarm” to the brain. This translates in the brain to fear and my body is set in motion. I quickly turn and see it’s a ball and that a child is nearby and smiling at me. My social engagement strategy puts the breaks on my fight/flight response and also calms my heart. I smile at the child. This sends a sense of relief to my gut and it in turn sends a “warm” feeling to the AIC. My heart is still pounding from the surprise, but my response is guided by compassion.
In the above scenario, we specifically looked at a situation with a challenge to safety. But in fact, we spend much of our time worrying about safety. Unless I am completely safe, listening to quiet music in a locked room, I will most likely have safety challenges to respond to. The challenge may be from the scary book I am reading, or from the sense of anxiety I feel when I drop a spoon on the floor. Almost any activity will involve the combined interaction of the various strategies. The bottom line: we are constantly adjusting ourselves to meet the world. Polyvagal Theory gives us a look at how this works.
This is pretty complex stuff – and the theory is still in flux. It changes with each new study that looks at the implications of Polyvagal Theory on our response to the world. It is going to impact research greatly in the months and years ahead. As I mentioned at the beginning, Polyvagal Theory adds a new dimension to how we see autism, sensory issues and other disorders and will, I think, inform our interventions for those disorders in a big way.
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing – with a long, slow exhale – is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.
Heart disease is the number one killer in America. One way to improve your heart health is to focus on the vagus-friendy lifestyle habits I explore below. Well conditioned athletes have higher vagal tone because aerobic breathing creates healthy vagal tone, which results in a lower resting heart rate. Healthy cardiac function is directly linked to stimulating the vagus nerve.
In 1921, a German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German: “Vagus Substance”). The “vagus substance” was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter identified by scientists.
Vagusstuff is literally a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales. You can consciously tap the power of your vagus nerve to create inner-calm on demand. This knowledge alone should be enough to reduce the fear-of-fear-itself and give you grace under pressure next time you need it.
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The word vagus means “wandering” in Latin. The words vagabond, vague, and vagrant come from the same root. The vagus nerve is known as the wandering nerve because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way.
The vagus nerve is constantly sending sensory information about the state of the body’s organs “upstream” to your brain. In fact, 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are dedicated to communicating the state of your viscera up to your brain. When people say “trust your gut” they are in many ways saying, “trust your vagus nerve.” Visceral feelings and gut-instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve.
As with any mind-body feedback loop, messages also travel “downstream” from your conscious mind through the vagus nerve signaling your organs to create an inner-calm so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety or to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight” in dangerous situations.
Your vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two polar opposite systems that create a complementary tug-of-war which allows your body to maintain homeostasis (inner-stability).
The sympathetic nervous system is geared to rev you up like the gas pedal in an automobile – it thrives on adrenaline and cortisol and is part of the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the polar opposite. The vagus nerve is command central for the function of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow you down like the brakes on your car and uses neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to literally lower heart rate, blood pressure, and help your heart and organs slow down.
Unfortunately, the vagus nerve’s reflexive responses can backfire and turn it from comrade into saboteur. Anytime you psyche yourself out before an important event, feel intimidated, or insecure your vagus nerve interprets that you are in real danger which exacerbates these negative responses.
All of the physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach, shakiness – are the result of your vagus nerve disengaging. Luckily, you have the power to harness your vagus nerve and keep it engaged to create grace under pressure. By understanding the incredible power of your vagus nerve you can begin practicing ways to flex it’s inhibitory strength to keep you mellow in times of distress.
7 habits that will stimulate your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure
1. Visualize the Vagus Nerve. Visualizing the vagus nerve as a wellspring of neurobiological ingredients that create mental and physical calmness will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not just the placebo effect in action. Remember, anytime you take a deep breath and exhale you are triggering a biological release of vagusstuff that will lower heart rate and blood pressure.
In addition to visualizing my vagus nerve I literally talk to it in the third person like it is a separate entity. You can try this too the next time you have the butterflies or are shaky before a big presentation or challenge. I will literally say to my vagus nerve things like, “I thought we were in this together. I need you to work with me here. Come on! Don’t let me down.” Somehow this helps take my ego out of the situation, puts me at ease, and makes me feel like I have a loyal comrade on deck. Try this trick the next time you need grace under pressure and see if it works for you.
I include this narrow anatomical drawing to help you visualize what the vagus nerve actually looks like in your body and to illustrate how long it is from top to bottom [see top left].
2. Practice, Practice, Practice. In a Psychology Today blog entry called No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect, I wrote about the power of your cerebellum to store muscle memory and allow you to perform gracefully under pressure. Without extensive practice we are forced to rely too much on the ‘executive function’ of our prefrontal cortex. Anytime you ‘over-think’ your performance you are more likely to choke, fumble and drop the ball. Arthur Ashe called this “paralysis by analysis.” Once the cerebellum is running the show your vagus nerve engages which helps create fluidity in your thoughts and actions.
3. Create Flow by balancing skill and challenge. The key to being in the ‘zone’ or creating a state of ‘flow’ is to find the sweet spot where your skill level perfectly matches the challenge. Get in the habit of continually nudging against your limits. By increasing the challenge gradually you become more skilled and comfortable with more difficult tasks.
Seek challenges that keep you nestled between anxiety and boredom. The key to peak performance is to have a heightened state of arousal but an inner sense of calm reflected in a perfect dynamic tension within the yin-yang of your autonomic nervous system. Although it is tempting to bite-off-more-than you can chew, your vagus nerve can betray you if it feels you’re in uncharted territory. By consistently increasing your skills you will feel at ease as you take on bigger challenges. That said, if you ever do have the opportunity to leap frog to a high-stakes challenge, use other techniques here to harness the vagus nerve and use it as an ally to get you through.
4. Reframe Priorites and Values. I strongly believe that friends, family, good health, and generosity of spirit matter more than any achievements that requires grace under pressure. In 2006, Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford University School of Education, conducted a series of experiments designed to reduce test-taking pressures. In the experiment he asked students to write a paragraph about a topic unrelated to the exam such as: “relationships with friends and family,” “religious values,” “athletic ability,” and “being good at art” before being tested. This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of students.
Before you face any challenge or test that fills you with performance anxiety get in the habit of reframing the importance of the event by putting it in a broader perspective of other things that you’re good at and what matters most to you. Even when the stakes are high, remember that every hurdle is an opportunity to learn. Mastery is a process. Overblown performance anxiety jacks up cortisol and andrenaline levels and makes you less likely to succeed.
5. Use neuroplasticity to re-wire habits of positive thinking. By generating positive emotions and a learned optimism you will ‘fire-and-wire’ together neural networks associated with a mindset that will give you grace under pressure. The vagus nerve picks up on signals coming from the ‘top-down’ and from the ‘bottom-up’ and uses these signals to re-wire your mind through neuroplasticity.
On January 28, 2013 researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland announced that they are hoping to help victims of stroke to overcome physical disabilities by helping their brains to ‘rewire’ themselves using a Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS). Lead researcher Dr Jesse Dawson, a stroke consultant and clinical senior lecturer in medicine, described the vagus nerve by saying, “That nerve is one of the major nerves that goes to the brain. By stimulating the nerves, you can cause upstream changes in the brain without having to go into the brain.”
It is hoped that the device will stimulate release of the brain’s own chemicals and help the brain form new neural connections which might improve participants’ arm mobility. In 2005, the FDA approved the use of VNS for treatment-resistant depression, although it’s use remains controversial… VNS is also used to treat epilepsy and tinnitus.
Dr Dawson added: “Evidence from animal studies suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could cause the release of neurotransmitters which help facilitate neural plasticity and help people re-learn how to use their arms after stroke, particularly if stimulation is paired with specific tasks.” The link between vagus nerve stimulation and neuroplasticity is strong. By focusing on creating healthy vagal tone you can trigger similar neuroplastic changes from the bottom-up. Creating a mindset of grace under pressure can be reinforced through the powerful mind-body connection of the vagus nerve.
6. Seek Daily Physicality. Cardio-respiratory activity, strength training and yoga stimulate vagal tone and harmonize hormones and neurotransmitters linked to grace under pressure. Aerobic activity stimulates healthy vagal tone due to the inherent diaphragmatic breathing of rhythmic cardio-respiratory exercise. Strength training with an emphasis on a robust exhale as you push the weight will stimulate vagal tone.
Yoga increases vagal tone, too. In a 2012 article published in Medical Hypotheses, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), New York Medical College (NYMC), and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (CCPS) presented evidence that yoga may be effective in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease.
The researchers hypothesize that stress causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic under-activity and sympathetic over-activity) as well as under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. According to the researchers, low GABA activity occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic pain. The hypothesis advanced in this paper could explain why vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) works to decrease both seizure frequency and the symptoms of depression.
“Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances,” said Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, who is the study’s lead author. Streeter believes that “This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders.”
6. Anxiety is contagious: Avoid anxious people. As a neurosurgeon, my father needed to have grace under pressure. He understood how delicate the sensors of his own vagus nerve were and would ask anyone in the operating room to leave if he or she was emitting an uptight vibe.
I’ve learned to do the same in life – especially before an important event. Because anxiety is catching, I will remove myself from the vicinity of anyone who is negative, cynical or doubtful of my ability to hit-it-out-of-the-park in a high stakes situation. The vagus nerve picks up on people’s vibe. Of course, none of us like to be around high strung people, but it is particularly important when you need to have grace under pressure.
If you are unable to remove yourself from anxious or nervous people (like in a waiting room for an audition or near the starting line of a race) I recommend using headphones with music that creates an appropriate mood and blocks the ability of others’ anxiety to affect your vagal tone. You can also close your eyes and do mindfulness or meditation maneuvers to distance your vagal nerve from picking up the nervous vibe of people in your vicinity. Obviously, people who emit easy-going, warm, upbeat emotions are much better for your health, longevity, and ability to perform with grace under pressure. Seek these people out!
7. Foster Loving & Kindness. In order to maintain healthy vagal tone it’s important to foster diverse and rewarding social connections. In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Kok of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focused their attention on the vagus nerve.
Their article was titled: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.They discovered that a high vagal tone index was part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health and positive social connections.
Their research results suggests that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward spiral dynamic that scientists are just beginning to understand. Kok states that: “We propose here that people’s ability to translate their own positive emotions into positive social connections with others may hold one of the keys to solving this mystery.”
In the experiment Frederickson and Kok used a Loving-Kindness Meditation technique to help participants become better at self-generating positive emotions. However, they also found that simply reflecting on positive social connections and working to improve them also caused improvements in vagal tone.
Conclusion: The Vagus Nerve and Ferocious Equanimity
Equanimity is a core tenet of many ancient philosophies and religions. Equanimity is defined as “Mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Equanimity has its biological roots in the vagus nerve and is synonymous with grace under pressure.
Equanimity is not synonymous with passivity. As you strive to push yourself ever higher – and take on bigger challenges – do so with what I call “Ferocious Equanimity”. Use your vagus nerve to stay balanced and calm when the stakes are high. As you push against your limits remember that your vagus nerve is always there to keep you imperturbable and steady on the high-wire act of living your life to it’s fullest and maximizing your potential.
Hopefully the advice herein will give you some tools to utilize the incredible power of your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure the next time you need it.
The link between mind and body is terrain into which many medical researchers, fearing ridicule, dare not tread. But perhaps more should do so. For centuries, doctors have recognised the placebo effect, in which the illusion of treatment, such as pills without an active ingredient, produces real medical benefits. More recently, respectable research has demonstrated that those who frequently experience positive emotions live longer and healthier lives. They have fewer heart attacks, for example, and fewer colds too.
Why this happens, though, is only slowly becoming understood. What is needed is an experiment that points out specific and measurable ways in which such emotions alter an individual’s biology. And a study published in Psychological Science, by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, does precisely that.
Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok concentrated their attentions on the vagus nerve. This nerve (illustrated right, in an early anatomical drawing) starts in the brain and runs, via numerous branches, to several thoracic and abdominal organs including the heart. Among its jobs is to send signals telling that organ to slow down during moments of calm and safety.
How effectively the vagus nerve is working can be tracked by monitoring someone’s heart rate as he breathes in and out. Healthy vagal function is reflected in a subtle increase in heart rate while breathing in and a subtle decrease while breathing out. The difference yields an index of vagal tone, and the value of this index is known to be connected with health. Low values are, for example, linked to inflammation and heart attacks.
What particularly interested Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok was recent work that showed something else about the vagal-tone index: people with high tone are better than those with low at stopping bad feelings getting overblown. They also show more positive emotions in general. This may provide the missing link between emotional well-being and physical health. In particular, the two researchers found, during a preliminary study they carried out in 2010, that the vagal-tone values of those who experience positive emotions over a period of time go up. This left them wondering whether positive emotions and vagal tone drive one another in a virtuous spiral. They therefore conducted an experiment on 65 of the university’s staff, to try to find out.
They measured all of their volunteers’ vagal tones at the beginning of the experiment and at its conclusion nine weeks later. In between, the volunteers were asked to go each evening to a website especially designed for the purpose, and rate their most powerful emotional experiences that day. Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok asked their volunteers to consider nine positive emotions, such as hope, joy and love, and 11 negative ones, including anger, boredom and disgust. They were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, whether—and how strongly—they had felt each emotion. One point meant “not at all”; five meant “extremely”. In addition, half the participants, chosen at random, were invited to a series of workshops run by a licensed therapist, to learn a meditation technique intended to engender in the meditator a feeling of goodwill towards both himself and others. This group was encouraged to meditate daily, and to report the time they spent doing so.
Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok discovered that vagal tone increased significantly in people who meditated, and hardly at all in those who did not. Among meditators, those who started the experiment with the highest vagal-tone scores reported the biggest increases in positive emotions. Meditators who started with particularly low scores showed virtually no such boost.
Taken as a whole, these findings suggest high vagal tone makes it easier to generate positive emotions and that this, in turn, drives vagal tone still higher. That is both literally and metaphorically a positive feedback loop. Which is good news for the emotionally positive, but bad for the emotionally negative, for it implies that those who most need a psychosomatic boost are incapable of generating one. A further (as yet unpublished) experiment by Dr Kok suggests, however, that the grumpy need not give up all hope. A simpler procedure than meditation, namely reflecting at night on the day’s social connections, did seem to cause some improvement to their vagal tone. This might allow even those with a negative outlook on life to “bootstrap” their way to a mental state from which they could then advance to the more powerful technique of meditation.
Whether, besides improving general health, the mechanism Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok have discovered helps explain the placebo effect remains to be investigated. But it might, because part of that effect seems to be the good feeling engendered by the fact of being treated. More generally, doctors in the ancient world had a saying: “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. This sort of work suggests that though this proverb is true, a better one might be, “a healthy mind for a healthy body”.
A psychologist probes how altruism, evolution and neurobiology mean that we can succeed by not being cutthroat
Why do people do good things? Is kindness hardwired into the brain, or does this tendency arise via experience? Dacher Keltner, director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, investigates these questions from multiple angles and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his recent book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (W. W. Norton, 2009), Keltner weaves together scientific findings with personal narrative to uncover human emotion’s innate power to connect people with one another, which he argues is the path to living the good life. Here Keltner discusses altruism, neurobiology and the practical applications of his findings with David DiSalvo.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND: What, in a nutshell, does the term “born to be good” mean to you?
DACHER KELTNER: “Born to be good” means that our mammalian and hominid evolution has crafted a species—us—with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smoothly functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion—feelings such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth. Recent studies have revealed that our capacity for caring, play, reverence and modesty is built into our brains, bodies, genes and social practices.
MIND: One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism is the vagus nerve, as your team at U.C. Berkeley has found. Tell us a bit about this research and its implications.
KELTNER: The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord. It activates different organs throughout the body (such as the heart, lungs, liver and digestive organs). When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s goodness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music. Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.
Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.
MIND: Often when we learn about this type of intriguing academic work being done on emotions, morality and related areas, we are left asking, “Is there anything we can make actual use of here?” As you look down the road, what do you want the impact of your work to be out in the world?
KELTNER: In summarizing the new science of emotion in Born to Be Good, I was struck by how useful it is. Recent research is suggesting that our capacities for virtue and cooperation and our moral sense are old in evolutionary terms, and these capacities are found in the emotions I write about.
A new science of happiness is finding that these emotions can be readily cultivated in familiar ways, bringing out the good in others and in oneself. Here are some recent empirical examples:
This kind of science gives me many hopes for the future. At the broadest level, I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life. In more specific terms, I see this new science informing practices in almost every realm of life. Here again are some well-founded examples: Medical doctors are now receiving training in the tools of compassion—empathetic listening, warm touch—that almost certainly improve basic health outcomes. Teachers now regularly teach the tools of empathy and respect. In prisons and juvenile detention centers, meditation is being taught. And executives are learning the wisdom of emotional intelligence—respect, building trust—and that there is more to a company’s thriving than profit or the bottom line.
The vulnerability of our children transformed human relationships, argues Dacher Keltner, and made compassion essential to our survival.
Charles Darwin was the beloved and engaged dad of a really rambunctious group of children. When one of his daughters died at age 10, Darwin started to have these deep insights about the place of suffering and compassion in human experience.
That led him to write, in The Descent of Man, that “sympathy is our strongest instinct, stronger than self-interest,” and he argued that it would spread through natural selection, for “the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
This point was totally forgotten by evolutionary science for quite some time. Well, given all the awful things humans do to each other, how could you make the case that sympathy is our strongest instinct?
The answer lies in the dependence and vulnerability of our children. Little baby chimpanzees eat by themselves; human babies can’t. Baby chimpanzees sit up on their own; you sit up a human baby, and they go, “Watch out, man, my head’s really big!” Boom!
Their heads are so big because their brains are so big. To fit their big heads through the human birth canal—which narrowed as we started to walk upright on the African savanna—our babies were born profoundly premature and dependent upon people to take care of them.
In fact, our babies are the most vulnerable offspring on the face of the Earth. And that simple fact changed everything. It rearranged our social structures, building cooperative networks of caretaking, and it rearranged our nervous systems. We became the super caregiving species, to the point where acts of care improve our physical health and lengthen our lives. We are born to be good to each other.
Are you a vagal superstar?
You can see our natural connectivity and compassionate instincts in how our brains react to pain. Let’s say I pinch or burn your skin—the anterior cingulate region of your brain will light up. But it’s not just your own pain. If you see somebody else suffering, that very same part of the cortex activates. We have the same pain response to other people’s pain as we do to our own experience of pain. We are wired to empathize, if you will.
That’s not the only part of the brain that lights up when we see images of suffering and distress. The amygdala—the brain’s threat detector—activates, which is no surprise since we might worry the suffering will come our way.
But there’s another area that lights up, a very old part of the mammalian nervous system called the periaqueductal gray, way down in the center of the brain. In mammals, this region is associated with nurturing behavior. We don’t just see suffering as a threat. We also instinctively want to alleviate that suffering through nurturance.
We can find another example of how our bodies are wired for compassion in a fascinating part of your autonomic nervous system called the vagus nerve. Vagus is Latin for “wandering,” and the vagus nerve starts at the top of the spinal cord and wanders through your body, through muscles in your neck that help you nod your head and orient your gaze toward other people and vocalize. It then drops down and helps coordinate the interaction between your breathing and your heart rate, then goes into the spleen and liver, where it controls a lot of digestive processes. Recent studies suggest the vagus nerve is related to a stronger immune system response and regulates your inflammation response to disease.
This makes the vagus nerve one of the great mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down. You see baseball pitchers do this on the mound—they breathe out to calm down, just before they start their windup. The vagus nerve controls that relationship, between the breathing and the calming.
In our lab, we show participants photos of suffering and distress and find that these images activate the vagus nerve. We’ve also found that if somebody tells you about a sad experience—of, say, their grandparent dying—your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an inspiring story, their vagus nerve fires. The more you feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
We also show our undergraduates images intended to inspire pride—like Berkeley’s Sather Gate or the school mascot—and we find that the more pride they feel, the weaker the vagus nerve response. And that really astounds me. This result tells us that when you feel a strong vagus nerve response, you are feeling common humanity with many different groups. When we’re encouraged to feel strong identification with just our own group and not others, the vagus nerve dims.
We’ve also found people who have really strong vagus nerves—“vagal superstars,” as I like to call them. We find that these folks have more positive emotion on a daily basis, stronger relationships with peers, better social support networks. Fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile are the kids who intervene when a kid is being bullied. They’re more likely to cooperate, and will donate recess time to tutor a kid who needs help on homework.
There are a lot of data that suggest we are wired to care, down to the neurochemical level. I’m sure many of you have heard about oxytocin, a neuropeptide that goes up to your brain and is then distributed through your body by your bloodstream. You probably know that breastfeeding mothers release oxytocin and so do men who are engaged in a good long smooch with their sweetheart.
But there are also new studies finding that it may induce altruism. If I give 10 dollars to study participants and squirt some oxytocin up their nose, they will share more of that money with a stranger than they would without the squirt. That’s why oxytocin has been dubbed “the moral molecule” by neuroeconomist Paul Zak.
How contagious is compassion?
And here’s the thing: Research suggests that those strangers who receive money will then be more likely to turn around and make their own gifts. Generosity is contagious. Kindness just spreads like wildfire.
Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have been studying a community in Massachusetts, and they find that among adults, everything is contagious. If your neighbor goes on a diet, you go on a diet. If a person a couple of blocks away start smoking, other people start smoking, and you end up smoking. If you become angry, it spreads to your family and through social networks.
But are negative emotions and behaviors more contagious than the positive and ones, as some think? Research says the answer is no. In fact, positive emotions and prosocial emotions are more contagious than any others. They spread much more rapidly and collectively than the negative.
This might be because giving and sharing feel good. There are studies showing, for example, that if I share resources with you, I get a little activation in the reward circuit in my brain.
What’s more, there’s evidence that these good feelings promote bonding through social networks, even bridging social divisions. My lab has found that if you can get people to feel compassion, they start to feel deeply connected to very different groups. In particular, they feel like they are similar to and share a common humanity with people who are really in need, who are really vulnerable. Cultivating this feeling of compassion makes people more attuned to who is in need and enables more altruistic behavior toward them.
There’s one final, crucial social effect of compassion, and it goes back to Darwin and evolution. To pass your genes to the next generation, you’ve got to have qualities that make you attractive as a partner or, in evolutionary language, as a mate.
Well, researcher David Buss generated a lot of controversy when he surveyed 10,000 people from 37 different countries—heterosexuals at the age of forming romantic partnerships—and asked them: What is most important to you in a mate?
Gender differences generated all the attention around this remarkable study. Women were a bit more interested in men’s financial prospects than men were in women’s, so according to this study, women value resources a little more. And men—primitive apes that they are—were a bit more interested in women’s beauty than women were in men’s looks.
But there was another result that no one talked about, and it was this: Kindness was found to be the most important criterion for a mate, and the single universal requirement across these 37 countries. People are looking for kindness as a mating strategy.
So forget what you’ve been told about compassion—that it’s unnatural, that it’s for suckers. Compassion is essential to our evolutionary history, it defines who we are as a species, and it serves our greatest needs as individuals—to survive, to connect, and to find our mates in life.