A fascinating article appears in New Scientist this month (July 13th) entitled Wishful Thinking, by Emma Young.
It focuses on the function of the 10th cranial or vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the lungs, digestive tract and heart. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, a mechanism which restores your normal emotional state after some kind of shock or stress, and your measure of this innate ability to rebound is known, apparently, as vagal tone.
Emotional resilience has long been understood as a more or less fixed attribute, even one defining the personality as a whole: we all know someone who holds a grudge too long, and someone else who cheerfully overcomes even crushing disappointment, and these qualities seem so ingrained as to be inseparable from our perception of them as people.
But besides the obvious advantage of emotional teflon in a confounding world of opposing forces, high vagal tone correlates with a raft of extra benefits. It correlates with empathy and therefore better relationships, better working memory and attention span, and increases your ability to produce insulin, regulate blood glucose and supress inflammation – so much so that low vagal tone is strongly associated with dying from cardiovascular disease!
As this crossroads of mental and physical resilience comes under scientific scrutiny, here’s the amazing thing: vagal tone, like muscle tone, can be developed at will. Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, conducted a study which included the influence of meditation. Volunteers were instructed in meditation and given a daily routine involving visualising the good qualities of others, and repeating phrases of goodwill and benevolence towards them. What she found was astonishing:
After nine weeks, vagal tone had increased significantly in meditators, but not in people who neglected their practice. Those who started with the highest scores had the greatest increases in positive emotions and social interconnectedness (psychological Science, doi.org/m3x).
Just as in the gym there is a challenge to the unfit but an upward spiral to those who persist, so it is with meditation: the mental muscles providing stamina and endurance respond to thought. Thought is not separate from living matter: it is a force acting on it.
So it turns out all this robust mental health and optimism, along with a raft of physical benefits, is actually yours for the taking, without drugs, without institutions, without anything but your own consciousness.
And it’s thanks to science – sure enough, all this research on the mind and body came up with a great new idea: prayer!
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.