In ‘Wishful Thinking’ (New Scientist, July 13 2013) we’re told that the vagus nerve (aka the 10th cranial nerve) connects the brain to internal organs, including the lungs, digestive tract and the heart – a fact known since the second century. More recently understood is that the vagus plays an important role in the parasympathetic nervous system – the part that works to calm us down after a stressful event. The stronger the activity of the vagus, the more readily we can return to a state of equilibrium; the strength of that activity is known as ‘vagal tone’
Vagal tone peaks in childhood, decreases in adolescence and by adulthood can vary from individual to individual as much as height can. People who are overweight and don’t exercise much tend to have less vagal tone, as do those with Chronic Fatigue syndrome, and there seems to be a link between low vagal tone and depression, and death from cardiovascular disease.
People with higher vagal tone tend to be more intellectually ‘sparkier’, have a better working memory and an ability to focus; are more emotionally stable, less stressed and happier than the average. They also have a greater degree of sociability and empathy.
There is evidence that meditation – specifically a method in which you bring someone – yourself or other – to your awareness and radiate lovingness towards them – can increase vagal tone which then improves mental and physical health. Good vagal tone also improves emotional and social well-being, ‘deepening our personal experience and lengthening our lives.’