Step aside, amygdala. I predict that 2013 is going to be the year of the vagus nerve.
In 2012, books like Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow climbed the bestseller lists and made the amygdala a household word. (Especially if your household included a neuroscientist.) This almond-shaped patch of neurons, embedded deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, was found to influence our decision-making behaviour In fact, more than we might care to admit, preferring to see ourselves as rational animals. (Hardy har har.)
But that’s so last year. Now, it’s all about the vagus nerve. Granted, the name does not trip lightly off the tongue but, trust me, this long nerve — that starts in the brain and splits into multiple branches running through the thoracic and abdominal organs — has legs. And, there’s happy news for New Age types in new research that points to the role of meditation and positive thinking in attaining good health.
Two researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to find out why people who frequently experience positive emotions live longer and healthier lives. The key, it seems, is the vagus nerve. This nerve is a messenger system that basically tells organs to, like, chill. High vagus tone is connected to good health, while low tone is correlated with inflammation and heart attacks. In the experiment, volunteers were asked to record how strongly they felt about various positive and negative emotional states. In addition, half the group studied meditation intended to enhance feelings of goodwill toward oneself and others. At the end of the 9-week period, those who meditated had a significant increase in vagus nerve tone, whereas non-meditators did not. In a subsequent experiment, the researchers found that even misanthropes could increase their vagus nerve tone by reflecting at night on the day’s social connections.
These studies shed light on how placebo effects might occur. Until now, conventional medicine has poorly understood why people benefit as much from sham surgery as from the real thing. Or why sugar pills masquerading as opiates can produce drug-related side effects such as shallow breathing. And how dosing patients suffering from clinical depression with candy meds is as effective as giving them the latest and most potent anti-depression pharmaceuticals.
Placebo effects appear to be strongest when the “drama”, that is, the setting, the medical practitioner and the treatment are congruent. That’s why placebo injections tend to be more effective than placebo pills and why placebo surgery often has a positive outcome. Also, optimistic practitioners who instil confidence in their patients are frequently rewarded with just such an outcome.
As a highly impressionable type myself, I would be very happy to see a rebalancing of the purely mechanistic model of medicine. We are all more than the sum of our various ailing parts. Acknowledging the role of emotions, mindfulness and kindness in creating and maintaining good health is a start to a new and better health care system. How does that Otis Redding song go? “Try a little tenderness.”