The Compassion Nerve, The Wandering Nerve, The Vagus Nerve: It’s in our Physiology to Be Good

Why do people do good things? Is kindness hardwired into the brain, or does this tendency arise via experience or perhaps through understanding great adversity? Is it inherited, or genetically encoded in our DNA? How do we, as humans, tap into our greatest compassionate selves?


Compassion research is at a tipping point: Overwhelming evidence suggests compassion is good for our health and good for the world!  Last week I came across an article that showcased one of the leading authors behind the neuroscience of compassion, Dacher Keltner a director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley and it got me thinking about the brain’s connection, the neuroscience of what it means to be and do good in the world. The article was called “New Earth Physiology – Activating the Vagus Nerve” by Angela Savitri Petersen.

Keltner investigates these questions from multiple angles and often generates results that are both surprising and challenging. In his recent book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (W. W. Norton, 2009), and he weaves together scientific findings to uncover the neurological knowhow of human emotion’s innate power to connect people with one another. It is his believe that this lays the foundation towards leading a good life. Our research and that of other scientists suggest that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of caretaking and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism – compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.”

You can see our natural connectivity and compassionate instincts in how our brains react to pain. Nerves connect all parts of the body to and from brain in order to improve immunological, physiological and hormonal functions of the body. Our nervous system is highly intricate and each and every nerve supply important sensory and motor information to the relay stations in the brain (neurons) to perform critical activities. The Vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the body with a number of functions and as it would seem when activated create results that are all encompassing – better for the world, and our humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love and happiness.


It’s in the DNA of the Brain

When we feel pain, or even see someone else in pain – we immediately empathize. This is the vagus nerve kicking in. We are hard wired to connect with others, even if in today’s world it might not seem so – we are.

And that’s not the only part of the brain that lights up when we see images of pain or suffering and distress. The amygdala—the brain’s threat detector—activates. This is the internal alarm system of the brain that turns on “fight” or “flight,” which is no surprise because we are also hardwired for survival.

When these two area’s are activated, and in highly compassionate people, there’s another area of the brain that Keltner has found lights up, a very old part of the mammalian nervous system called the periaqueductal gray; which is located way down in the center of the brain. This region is associated with nurturing behavior in mammals. We don’t just see pain or distress or suffering as a threat. We also instinctively want to alleviate that suffering through nurturance; whether that be our own or nurturing of someone else.


What exactly is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve is a bundle of nerves that originates in the top of the spinal cord, near the cranium and it is better known in Latin as the “wandering” nerve, because it wanders from the cranium, all the way down the spinal cord, to your lungs to help you breath and control heart rate, and into your spleen and digestive system.  It activates different organs throughout the body. When active, it is likely to produce that feeling of warm expansion in the chest—for example, when we are moved by someone’s act of kindness or when we appreciate a beautiful piece of music or visual landscape. This makes the vagus nerve one of the great mind-body links in the human nervous system. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down, you can control your body’s function by connecting the mind-to body… via activating your vagus nerve.

In an article dated a couple years back by Scientific America “Forget Survival of the Fittest: It Is Kindness That Counts” David DiSalvo (the journalist) had a close encounter with Dacher Keltner, on an interview DiSalvo asked; “One of the structures in our body that seems especially adapted to promote altruism, is the vagus nerve, as your team at U.C. Berkeley has found. Tell us a bit about this research and its implications?

Keltner replies offering kudos to another top rated scientist;  “Neuroscientist Stephen W. Porges of the University of Illinois at Chicago long ago argued that the vagus nerve is [the nerve of compassion] (of course, it serves many other functions as well). Several reasons justify this claim. The vagus nerve is thought to stimulate certain muscles in the vocal chamber, enabling communication. It reduces heart rate. Very new science suggests that it may be closely connected to receptor networks for oxytocin, a neurotransmitter involved in trust and maternal bonding.”

Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with high-baseline vagus nerve activity are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism: that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.


Stress and the Vagus Nerve:

Your nervous system cannot differentiate between mental or physical stress – it just feels stress. The body’s levels of stress hormones are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS).  The ANS has two components that work to balance each other; which are the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).

The SNS activates or turns on your nervous system. It helps us handle what we perceive to be emergencies, when there is a threat, and is in charge of the flight-or-fight response.

The PNS aims to turn off the nervous system and helps us to keep the systems relaxed and calm. It promotes relaxation, rest, sleep, and drowsiness by slowing our heart rate, slowing our breathing, constricts the pupils of our eyes, decreases muscular contraction and relaxes tissue. Acetylcholine; which the nervous system uses as a neurotransmitter is responsible for learning and memory. It is also calming and relaxing, which is used by vagus nerve to send messages of peace and relaxation throughout your body. As we get older, our connective tissue starts to become more stiff and our bones more brittle, we stiffen up and your immune system produces more inflammatory molecules, thus our nervous system turns on the stress response, promoting system breakdown and aging.


Vagus and Inflammation

New research has found that acetylcholine is a major brake on inflammation in the body and understanding how to consciously refine the benefits found in meditation and therapeutic movement, like yoga and flow state energy work can help activate the vagus nerve – which leaves you not only relaxed, but more joyful and thus compassionate.

A ground breaking piece of research by Kevin Tracey, director of the Feinstein Institute and Professor and President of the Elmezzi graduate school of molecular medicine in Manhasset, New York, has been knee deep in research for, what seems like ions on how the nervous system (the vagus nerve) controls inflammation in the body, now known as ‘The Inflammatory Reflex’. Inflammation is one of the major contributors to aging of the body and plays a key role in illness and disease. Tracey’s studies on inflammation, and the physiological and immunological response to infection and injury has been instrumental and he has worked on the mechanism by which neurons control the immune system; which he relates much success and reverse engineering disease in the body by activating the vagus nerve!

Inflammation isn’t always bad either; the vagus nerve is the brake on inflammation throughout the body. Once the vagus nerve senses that there are enough inflammatory substances (the chemicals of inflammation) following an injury it sends a signal to the immune cells that make those chemicals and tells them to turn off production, without it – we might literally burst Much like applying a break to your car, so the car can stop at the red light.

Studies have shown that there is a great link between inflammation and pain AND compassion. Seems logical enough. Studies have shown that those who show high vagal tone, have less disease, rake high on the healthy scales, and are – you guessed it – compassionate and inflammation free.


Brain Wave Frequency and Clearing the Mind

Another benefit to activating the vagus nerve is the connection with brain wave frequency and brain entrainment. When we calm the mind, the brain can make the transition to delta, theta and even gamma waves; which can be extremely beneficial for those who have sleep deprivation, or sleep disorders, as well as those in high stress occupations. Research has found higher levels of gamma brain waves and thicker brain cortexes (the areas associated with higher brain function) in people who meditate or perform slow energy work.


It shouldn’t seem unnerving that tapping into our vagus nerve increases compassion; and with that being said increases the sustainable benefits towards positive change for our planet and our humanity overall – Ketlner thinks so, and I would agree.



About the Author: Sarah Jamieson

Sarah Jamieson has written 155 posts on this site.

Sarah is the owner and head movement coach at Moveolution; a Vancouver based consulting company focused on the integration of movement and recovery science. Bridging the gaps between the clinical and performance fields Sarah’s passion stems from lifelong passion of Yoga, Jujitsu, and Qi Gong; which she integrates into her coaching practice. She is a full time social change maker, a ‘run-a-muker’ of everything outdoors and repeatedly engages in random acts of compassion.

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