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Now, my lab and some other labs have become obsessed with this fascinating part o

f your
body called the vagus nerve. Vagus is Latin for wandering, and the vagus
nerve starts
at the top of the spinal cord, and just think about a couple of things. It's uni
que to mammals,
it is interconnected, some studies suggest,
with oxytocin networks which were about
to talk about.
Recent studies suggest the vagus nerve is also related to a stronger immune syst
em response,
and very recent evidence in the last year or two suggest that the vagus nerve, a
s it
wanders through the body, regulates your inflammation response to disease.
This is one of the great
mind-body nexuses in the human nervous system. The vagus nerve wanders through y
our body,
starts right up here at the top of your spinal cord,
it goes to muscles in your neck that
help you nod your head and orient your gaze toward other people and vocalize. It
then
drops down and helps coordinate the
interaction between your breathing and your heart rate.
Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down. Its like baseball
pitchers
three and two count,
you dont see them go (takes a deep breath) they breathe out
to calm down. They vagus nerve controls that relationship between those two patt
erns. Then
it drops
down into the spleen and liver, and controls a lot of digestive processes. There
used to be certain surgeries for digestive disorders that would sever the vagus
nerve,
because it regulates the digestive process. Its this amazing bundle of nerves, an
d
given that it helps you communicate, it helps you empathize by orienting gaze
because its
connected up to oxytocin receptors, and because its mammalian, a fellow named Ste
ve Porges
said, This is the love nerve in your body.
It is the caretaking nerve in your body. What
a fascinating possibility.
So what weve been doing in our lab to assess that thesis is we show participants
images
of
suffering and distress, and if you reflect on the image, you may even feel your
chest
sort of change a little. And then because this is Berkeley, we show them images
that
create an opposite state, which is pride, so we show our undergrads images of Be
rkeley
like Sather Gate. And this is whats amazing to me: images of suffering
activate the vagus
nerve. We have a new study; if somebody tells you an experience of, say their gr
andparent
dying, your vagus nerve fires. If they tell you an

inspiring story, their vagus nerve


fires its getting ready for feelings of compassion. This graph just shows you whe
n
you measure vagus nerve by looking at the
relationship between heart rate and breathing
we call RSA, the more I feel compassion, the stronger the vagus nerve response.
The more
I feel pride, the
weaker the vagus nerve response. And this really astounds me. I that state
of having a strong vagus nerve response, I feel common humanity with many differ
ent groups.
Im feeling connected to people with different political persuasions, different et
hnic origins,
this is Berkeley undergrads, they even admit to feeling similar to
Stanford undergraduates,
which is a remarkable thing. And thats the self-other similarity. So these deep e
thical
intuitions of, Gee, we have common humanity
are tracking a physiological process, which
is really cool.
Another way we can study the role of the vagus nerve in compassion and the meani
ngful life,
and social
well-being is find people who have really strong vagus nerves, or sort of high
levels of activation in that bundle of nerves. You can do it in the lab,
you can come to
my lab and we could give you a profile of and we think of this as a temperament
I as a
joke called these people vagal superstars
thats how people like to think about them. And what
we find is a really interesting profile: if you have a really sort of a strong
vagal profile,
which you can cultivate through exercise, and recent studies suggest meditation,
and
other practices if you have a strong profile, you have more positive
emotion on a daily
basis, stronger relationships with peers, better social support networks, kids i
n schools,
fifth graders who have a stronger vagal profile
are the kids who intervene when a kid is being
bullied. And they cooperate, and will donate time like recess time to help a kid
who needs
help on homework.
It relates to altruism and prosociality as well, and theyre trusted
more. So another kind of data that says, wow, we think of compassion as this hig
her order
emotion,
but it really is tracking part of our nervous system as well.