The Vagus: A Biological Mechanism for Oneness?
by: Matthew S. Goodman, MA, BCB
When we are feeling more emotionally connected to people around us, our heart rhythms are more in sync with one another, suggesting a state of interpersonal “coherence.” When you are in a room filled with “good energy,” or are deeply tuned into your partner, the cells in your body are actually reflecting this harmony on a physiological level. Heart rate rhythms and the generation of a “coherent” state are mediated by a fascinating, and generally overlooked, structure in our nervous system. Let me introduce you to the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve runs from the brainstem to other parts of the body, including the heart and digestive tract. According to Stephen Porges and the “Polyvagal Theory,” the vagus evolved to serve three distinct mechanisms: 1) immobilization or “shutdown,” 2) sympathetic or “fight or flight,” and 3) social engagement.
So how, exactly, does this nerve influence these different states? Threats to an individual, whether external (a dark alley) or internal (worrying about the future), lead to vagal withdrawal and prepare us for defensive action, or “fight or flight.”. Trauma may lead to immobilization or shutdown of the system. When we feel safe, however, and are able to self-regulate our internal activity, the “rest,” “digest,” and “heal” part of our body kicks on and allows the evolutionarily-newer branch of the vagus to activate our social engagement system. When this occurs, our heart rates become rhythmic, juices start churning and digesting in our guts, and we’re better able to sense into our bodies. In sum, we feel more connected.
Interestingly, meditation is one way to gain better control of this vagal mechanism. Both increased attentional control and slow breathing patterns contribute to better vagal regulation. This should come as no surprise, considering a common effect of one’s meditation (or other contemplative) practice is feeling more connected to others- or feeling “oneness.”