Barbara Fredrickson of UNC and colleagues recently affirmed the relationship between lovingkindness meditation, health indicators and social connections. The vagus nerve plays a vital role in health and our sense of social compassion and connectedness. The researchers studied possible changes in the functioning of this nerve and behavior with two groups who did and did not participate in six weeks of hour-long classes in meditation focused on wishing good for others in their daily lives.
The vagus regulates how efficiently heart rate changes with breathing and, in general, the greater its tone, the higher the heart-rate variability and the lower the risk for cardiovascular disease and other major killers. It may also play a role in regulating glucose levels and immune responses.
In addition, and relevant to the study, the vagus is intimately tied to how we connect with one another — it links directly to nerves that tune our ears to human speech, coordinate eye contact and regulate emotional expressions. It influences the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is important in social bonding. Studies have found that higher vagal tone is associated with greater closeness to others and more altruistic behavior.
More of the meditators than those on the waiting list showed an overall increase in positive emotions, like joy, interest, amusement, serenity and hope after completing the class. And these emotional and psychological changes were correlated with a greater sense of connectedness to others — as well as to an improvement in vagal function as seen in heart-rate variability, particularly for those whose vagal tone was already high at the start of the study.
In this age where people must yet endure barbaric bullying and other insensitivities across contexts, these studies show promise and deserve scaling in any ways possible.