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The secrets of the mind-body connection


How is it that placebos or positive thinking are capable of improving our health? A study suggests that the key lies in the vagus nerve.

For decades medical research has recognized the existence of the placebo effect — in which the assumption that a medication will help produces actual physical improvements. In addition to this, a recent study has shown that experiencing positive emotions generates a series of similar health benefits, such as longevity or fewer propensities to get the flue. This is well known, but how this seemingly psychological state affects a person’s physiology is a mystery left for science to crack.

A while ago, The Economist reported a study lead by Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Klok from the University of North Carolina that seemed to uncover the missing pieces in understanding the relationship between the body and the mind. Frederickson and Klok focused on the vagus nerve (also known as the pneumogastric nerve), which starts in the brain and spans over several organs, including the heart. One of its functions—and the reason researchers chose to study it—is to emit signals telling these organs to slow their pace of work in moments of calm and security. The proper functioning of this nerve (measured in terms of vagal tone) has been linked to good health. A healthy vagal tone ensures a slight raise in heart rate when one inhales, and a slight dip when one exhales.

Previous studies had already shown that a high vagal tone predicts that a person will have a greater tendency for positive emotions and for working through the negative ones without feeling overwhelmed. In their study in 2010, Frederickson and Klok discovered, in short, that positive emotions raise one’s vagal tone, which implies a positive feedback loop between this nerve and our emotions—as if these forged a bridge between our body and mind.

In this experiment, the researchers measured the vagal tone of 65 persons before and after various week-long experiments. Volunteers were asked to evaluate their emotions on a daily basis, giving them a grade from 1 to 10. Additionally, half of the participants were trained in a meditation technique, which they were told to practice every day.

The results showed that those who meditated significantly raised their vagal tone, in contrast to those who didn’t. But only those with a high vagal tone felt these benefits; those who meditated and started with a low vagal tone didn’t experience any difference.

This suggests that at first it is difficult for some people—those who most need it—to achieve a rise in psychosomatic well-being. When for others it is easy to achieve emotions and states of being that are then clearly and physically manifested. This, however, doesn’t mean that there’s a definitive physiological determinism to our capacity to use our mind to heal ourselves. The vagus nerve is susceptible to neuroplasticity and those who tend to feel negative can do some daily exercises to begin to reflect on their mind-body connections, which, according to Dr. Klok would lightly raise their vagal tone and could be one step toward achieving the benefits of meditation.

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