What Happens in Vagus..

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.

New-Scientist-UK-13-July-2013Emotional 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!

Spinal root nerves, SEM

Some nerves yesterday (Science Photo Library)

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!


Remember meditation also floods the body with telomerase, the enzyme which extends the life of all cells, and it thickens the cortex, defeating age-related cortical thinning.  And altruistic thoughts flood the brain and body with oxytocin, an essential neurotransmitter for “virtually every system in the body”.  But you knew that already

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

Matthew 5:44

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.

Philippians 4:8

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
This entry was posted in Meditation, Parasympathetic nervous system, Science and Religion, Vagus nerve and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to What Happens in Vagus..

  1. Ita Liana says:

    This is wonderful! I just love it when science and religion come together! Thank you, great post!

  2. Dale Pond says:

    Iain, once again you have given me so much to offer to myself and in turn to others. I find it fascinating about the vagus nerve and all that we can do to draw out the intelligence within it to our benefit. I have been meditating alot lately about how the body talks to us in our daily lives. It is remarkable once one becomes aware and listens to what it is asking of us.

    I must say it isn’t always easy to make the changes that may be required, but it is certainly well worth the effort as I have found from those times that I not only listen, but actually take action. The positive results are what inspires me to continue my self-examination. Thank you for your continued efforts to inspire us to lift our consciousness to that of inner knowing, where miracles can happen.

    • Meditation does seem to be a staple of all religions, all spiritual practices. It’s a workout for consciousness, and unlike the gym, no extra equipment is needed, and it’s all free! Now science is finding out how important it is for sanity and the brain, perhaps religion will be seen in a different light. Considering the age of these traditions, it’s unbelievable they could have uncovered so much, using only the raw, uneducated brain. Or maybe that is the whole secret

  3. Kat says:

    Thanks Ian for another great illustration of how scientific advances and the beauty of religion can be rolled into one, seamlessly.

    Re the benefits of meditation (in all its forms). I’ve a hunch that the whole secret does indeed lie in the raw, uneducated brain. Even the simplest repetetive tasks and movements, like peeling potatoes or walking, can quiet the neo cortex chatter enough to allow ‘the wise original mind’ to reveal itself. Our hunter-gather ancestors had access to this state a lot more often than we do. Personally I think we need to re-assess our notions and mental models of “advancement”. To me a ladder motif is not so appropriate any more …. Cretan maze? We arrive back at our starting point, seeing it more fully, having experienced a whole lot. (T.S. Elliot made a similar point somewhere but obviously put much more eloquently).

    • I didn’t know about that repetitive thing – this must be why sometimes when we used to get bored of a song, we’d hit upon a rhythm while jamming and the audience would kind of go along with us, everyone on the same wavelength. It’s like everyone became calmed and open, and you could improvise and try to move them. Perhaps it’s why chanting is often used to still the mind in temples or churches, or even why armies march repetitively, singing pointless songs that just become sounds, to quieten all thoughts of dissent, or of fear.

  4. I will typically meditate regularly for several days, then not, then back to it when life seems a little too much. One of its effects for me is that even when I’m not meditating, it remains a place that I carry around with me, almost physically, in some way–like a reassuring, tranquil lake or park nearby that you know you can easily return to. Incidentally, thanks for introducing me to the New Scientist.

    • Well, of course you do carry it around physically – the bundle of neurotransmitters and enzymes lasts for some time. In fact, as regards oxytocin, it was found that injecting this into autistic patients helped relieve symptoms noticeably for as long as two weeks. So, seeing as we can generate these things ourselves, it’s insane to be hunting down drugs and chemicals instead.

      To show you the unbelievable corporate nature of research, I once read an article about how meditation helped relieve some psychotic symptoms, and of course the writer had to include the inevitable rider: “scientists hope this research could lead to improved drugs to mitigate psychotic symptoms…” Hey! Wait a minute, Professor Brainstawm! What about just using meditation?!

      All these things show that consciousness is actually the bedrock of our biological life, and not an afterthought or a freakish byproduct. Religions were our own ancient attempts to unravel and memorably define it. As a matter of fact, if you take away the traits of the ancient mind – a tendency towards superstition and fantastic imagery – all the world’s religions boil down to a certain prescribed way of life which ushers one towards an enlarged and euphoric consciousness.

      They all arose simultaneously when viewed in context of our millions of years’ evolutionary time, which shows they too were a product of the same evolutionary mechanism at work across the globe. They were present in every energetic and healthy society in the same way as language or dress or artistic expression, and show the same characteristic, endearing, and enthusiastic variations.

      What are these, if not metaphors for human evolution?

      • “consciousness is actually the bedrock of our biological life, and not an afterthought or a freakish byproduct.” I would say that our biological life is the bedrock of consciousness, which arose as a manager of all the incoming sense data. It also responded to ways–religion and meditation–to set aside the intensity of input and memory, leaving expansiveness and rejuvenation. Maybe we’re saying the same thing.

      • Well, not really! Because without consciousness, you cannot say something is alive. Since a cell comes only from a cell, it means that consciousness accompanies life. We can speculate about a dead living thing to start off, but that seems like a very imaginary thing.

        If you mean material can be functional, can replicate, incorporate food, guard against problems etc and be called “living” but without consciousness, then there is no need for consciousness to ever appear. If it is supposed to arise only in more complex life forms, then why is it a single cell has consciousnesss?

        The problem is that even a single cell must be armed with some kind of life to carry out those functions. Otherwise there is no reason for it to do these things. Since without consciousness, there is no life, it must be consciousness which is the defining element.

        I can’t see how life can be described without describing consciousness at the same time. If all biological life has it, then an imaginary state of life without consciousness is just a way to introduce something for which we have no evidence ever existed. So we might as well say they are one and the same. Call it a draw!

  5. Don’t know if this is the right place for this comment, but I couldn’t find a better one. I picked this comment up from the Science on G+ community on Google+:

    Lorenzo Pia originally shared:
    “A positive state of mind affects your genes.
    Scientists show that people who are happy because of a profound sense of purpose and meaning in life tend to have a sort of favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells, strong expression of antiviral genes and also low levels of inflammatory gene expression. In contrast, those happy because of consumatory-self-gratification lifestyle have the opposite, namely low antiviral and antibody gene expression and high inflammation.”
    With a link to:

    I thought you might find that interesting. Love the blog, keep writing.

    • This is fantastic, and reinforces my beliefs! In fact I believe I can feel some favourable gene expression working its magic as a result. Great find, many thanks

  6. Maria says:

    Inspiring. Adds credence to my belief that challenges make you a stronger person if addressed with a positive attitude. Indeed, sometimes pain is gain.

  7. Maria says:

    I understood that there is life (consciousness) and there is higher consciousness (awareness). Deepak Chopra describes it as the observed (consciousness) and the observer (higher consciousness). In other words, while our mind and body are thinking, there is the “observer” that is aware of the thinking and living process. Perhaps I misunderstood, but I just thought I’d throw in my 2 cents worth. It seems to me that the more we work on knowing or awareness, the closer we are in touch with the knower or God that is in all of us. Forgive me for my lack of scientific evidence, it is just what I experience.

    • What I like is how the methods of science are working their way towards the junction of mind and body. When I started this site 17 or 18 years ago nobody wanted the URLs like science and religion, science and mysticism. Nobody! I worried about choosing a name that wouldn’t stick in people’s minds so I registered a whole bunch. After months I saw what a pain in the neck it was to renew them all the time, and how pointless as there were so many variations, and you could never think of them all. So I kept just this one. Now all the obvious names with science and religion are taken, and it means people who actually try and contribute something are thinking the same way. It’s not even remarkable anymore to propose that science and religion can easily work together. Only the fanatics say it isn’t possible, but all the evidence, the new and exciting stuff, is on our side.

    • Nice point, Maria, and don’t worry about not being able to cite tons of evidence for what you are experiencing. Experience is a good guide. About consciousness, in some studies of the origin of language, language is traced back to the “information processing” that is carried out by even the simplest life. Cells take in the information about what’s around them and respond, and they even communicate chemically with other cells. This is consciousness in its basic form in the sense perhaps that Iain and Chopra are using it. Definitions get involved here. One difficulty is reflected in animal rights. The movement seeks to spare those animals that can experience pain, animals that are sentient. Animals with (relatively) higher consciousness. But if all living things possess consciousness (responsiveness, processing capacity), the line of which living creatures to spare and which not gets a little fuzzy. Don’t get me wrong, I support animal rights, but it might more accurately call itself the “sentient-animal rights” movement.

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