Our Heart

 

NEUROSCIENCE OF THE HEART

Remember this is just technical language for how your mind works!

HOW 'GENTLE-LOVING MEDITATIONS' CAN HELP PROMOTE OUR HEALTH AND WELL-BEING

First to clarify what some of the things mentioned in the notes are;

  • Cognitive flexibilityis described as the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and also to be able to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. 
  • Autonomic flexibility is the capacity of the parasympathetic nervous system (which we are focusing on in the breathing meditations) to adapt to changes in circumstance by modifying arousal, respiration, heart rate and attention. (Porges, 1995;Friedman and Thayer, 1998).
  • Cardiorespiratory synchronization is when breathing not only modulates, but also synchronizes the heart rate. (Important for all meditators and people with heart problems)

and most importantly,

Vagal Tone:

This relates to the activity of the vagus nerve which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.  The vagus nerve is actually made up of two cranial nerves that originate in the medulla in the brainstem.  They are connected to the viscera (the internal organs of the body), specifically those within the chest such as the heart or lungs and the abdomen such as the liver, kidneys, pancreas and intestines.

Physically the vagus nerve wanders through the body, weaving through the abdomen and branching into other nerves that extend through the limbs and organs.  So such things as our respiratory health, circulatory health and digestive health are all closely tied to the activities of the vagus nerve.  For instance, it regulates the chemical levels in the digestive system so that the intestines can process our food and keep track of what types of nutrients are being taken in from that food.  For reasons such as these, better vagal tone is linked with better overall health.

Your baseline level of vagal tone refers to the level of activity your vagus nerve returns to after you have experienced a stimulating event.  Each individual person will have a different baseline level.  The higher your baseline level of vagal tone the more able you are to control your ability to stimulate or calm yourself.  As a consequence you will be more able to develop your abilities to be attentive and focused.

Individuals who have a high baseline level of Vagal Tone adapt well in a variety of different life experiences. They demonstrate notable performances on a variety of measures of cognitive flexibility, these include;

  • working memory,
  • directed and focused attention
  • the ability to subdue a dominant response, (for example, not responding angrily to someone else’s anger).

Such people also show fewer negative responses to stressful everyday life situations and have a greater ability to regulate their own behaviours. 

Research has established that autonomic flexibility, (as recorded by the level of vagal tone), promotes well-being and further gains in autonomic flexibility.  It helps people capitalize on social and emotional opportunities as they arise in daily life.  Whereas Dr. R. Hoehn-Saric of the John Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, in 2004, established that decreased “autonomic flexibility” is found in anxiety disorders.

And how does meditation fit in to this?

In 2005 a piece of research by Dr. Dirk Cysarz and Dr. A. Bussing of the University of Witten/Herdecke, Germany, examined the effect of meditation on Vagal Tone.  They established that relaxation techniques, as in certain types of meditation, increase vagal tone. Significantly the researchers noted that the physiological benefits of meditation do not require prior experience in meditation; the high degree of cardiorespiratory synchronization is as evident in novice meditators as those who have experience.

Furthermore in 2013 research led by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences found that it is possible for a person to self-generate positive emotions in ways that make her or him physically healthier through meditation. 

To study the bodily effects of up-regulating positive emotions, the researchers focused on vagal tone.   As people who have higher vagal tone tend to be better at regulating their emotions, the researchers speculated that having higher vagal tone might lead people to;

  • experience more positive emotions,
  • which would then boost perceived positive social connections.
  • having more social connections would in turn increase vagal tone,
  • thereby improving physical health,

All of this creates what they refer to as an ‘upward spiral’ in a person’s vagal tone.

To see whether people might be able to harness this upward spiral to steer themselves toward better health, Kok, Fredrickson, and their colleagues conducted a longitudinal field experiment.  For two months, half of the study participants were randomly assigned to attend a 6-week loving-kindness meditation course (we are on our third week) in which they learned how to cultivate positive feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward themselves and others. They were asked to practice meditation at home, but how often they meditated was up to them. The other half of the participants remained on a waiting list for the course.  Both groups were examined with regard to their vagal tone at the beginning and compared vagal tone with the intervention group and the control group, the ‘waiting list’ group.

The research found the meditation significantly increased vagal tone.  The researchers also found the effect was increased through social connections. With increased social connections came increased vagal tone thus creating the upward spiral. Even those with greater vagal tone at the beginning of the study showed increase in their vagal tone after undergoing the meditation.

So to conclude, among other things, Loving-Kindness Meditations have been shown to:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce negative affect or mood
  • Reduce physical and emotional pain
  • Reduce anger levels and frequency
  • Reduce psychological stress
  • Increase feelings of hope
  • Produce more positive, and more lasting, positive emotions
  • Increase positive social emotions toward new people as well as loved ones

Sources:

Social Connections Drive the ‘Upward Spiral’ of Positive Emotions and Health by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Bethany Kok of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.  May 9, 2013 

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/social-connections-drive-the-upward-spiral-of-positive-emotions-and-health.html

or http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3122270/

Dirk Cysarz and Arndt Bussing: Cardiorespiratory Synchronization during Zen Meditation.  Published by European Journal of Applied Physiology Springer-Verlag 2005, 10.1007/s00421-005-1379-3

Url: http://www.zen.nl/nieuws/artikelen/hartsynchronisatie%20door%20zen.pdf

Hoehn-Saric R, Mcleod DR, Funderburk F, Kowalski P: Somatic symptoms and physiologic responses in generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder: An ambulatory monitor study. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2004;61:913-21. 

Porges SW: Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory.Psychophysiology. 1995;32(4):301–318. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7652107

Friedman BH, Thayer JF: Anxiety and autonomic flexibility: a cardiovascular approach. Biological Psychology.1998;47(3):243–263.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9564452