The vagus is intimately tied to how we connect with each other— it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.Researchers, led by Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recruited 65 members of the faculty and staff of the university for a study on meditation and stress. Roughly half were randomly assigned to take an hour-long class each week for six weeks in “lovingkindness” meditation, which involves focusing on warm, compassionate thoughts about yourself and others.
Participants were taught metta meditation, using certain phrases -- “May you feel safe, may you feel happy, may you feel healthy, may you live with ease” -- first for themselves and then expanding out to others. They were told to focus on the thoughts in meditation and in stressful situations such as when they were stuck in traffic. “It’s kind of softening your own heart to be more open to others,” says Fredrickson. They practiced for 61 days. Other were placed on a waiting list.
More of the meditators than those on the waiting list showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope after completing the class. And these emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others — as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart rate variability, particularly for those whose “vagal tone,” was already high at the start of the study.
“The biggest news is that we’re able to change something physical about people’s health by increasing their daily diet of positive emotion and that helps us get at a long standing mystery of how our emotional and social experience affects our physical health,” says Fredrickson.