[T]he vagus nerve is responsible for such varied tasks as heart rate, gastrointestinal peristalsis, sweating, and quite a few muscle movements in the mouth, including speech (via the recurrent laryngeal nerve) and keeping the larynx open for breathing (via action of the posterior cricoarytenoid muscle, the only abductor of the vocal folds). It also has some afferent fibers that innervate the inner (canal) portion of the outer ear, via the Auricular branch (also known as Alderman’s nerve) and part of the meninges. This explains why a person may cough when tickled on the ear (such as when trying to remove ear wax with a cotton swab).
I’m thinking, of course, of Swami Rama, via Stanislav Grof’s Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science (p. 249-50):
When I asked Swami [Rama] how he managed to put his heart into the peculiar non-pumping state of atrial flutter, he said that a large energy center in the middle of his chest (the “heart chakra in the subtle body”) was connected by a little line of “light” (prana) to a small energy center (chakra) associated with the right ear. In a state of meditation he “looked” inside himself, and when he saw the line of light he made it become “very bright,” and then the heart “stopped.”
[A physician gave a neurological explanation:] There is a loop of the vagus nerve (which controls the heart) very close to the right ear; the Swami obviously had learned a way to manipulate it.
We know from experiments with rats that the vagus nerve plays a role in overall immunity. When they’re given an infection in the gut, the rats go into septic shock. Their blood pressure drops, their organs fail, and then they die. Now give the rats the same exact infection and cut the vagus nerve. What happens? Bingo. They live. By cutting (or controlling) that message system, you haven’t eliminated the infection, but you’ve altered the rat’s brain’s response so that it doesn’t get the message that this infection’s a doozy and doesn’t kick off a huge immune reaction. Luckily, we don’t have to cut our own nerves to get a similar effect.
If you can do things to regulate your vagus nerve, you can block some of the bad stuff that you’re feeling, whether it’s caused by stress, infection, or sun-hot coals. Fire walkers, for instance, have figured out a way of meditating to change how the vagus and other nerves interpret the world around them to block not just the pain but also the blisters and other bad stuff that would happen if we mere mortals attempted the same thing.
Uh, no. Anyone can do firewalking; it’s about physics and the specific heat of coal, not about “changing how the vagus and other nerves interpret the world around you.”
The vagus remains a mysterious nerve in your body, but thanks to new insights about it and data that seem to indicate its power, we’re starting to understand not only that meditation (or, as I prefer to call it, training your vagus) might work, but how it works to influence your immune system and aging.
From Oz’s You: Staying Young (p. 115, 135-6):
Acupuncture causes measurable increases in vagus nerve activity, so it is at least theoretically possible that these electrical circuits can reduce the inflammatory response by calming down aggressive white blood cells and the cytokine chemicals they release….
One of the key players in lung health is the vagus nerve. When the lung expands during normal shallow breathing, that stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve then sends a message to the brain to constrict the bronchi, making breathing more difficult…. Meditation serves to physiologically cut the the vagus nerve, so it disrupts the feedback loop of bronchial constriction, allowing you to breathe easier.
Scientists have long known that emotional arousal enhances memory, but they didn’t know exactly how. Adrenaline and other hormones produced when your emotions are engaged have memory-boosting effects—but they don’t readily cross the protective blood-brain barrier. Likewise, certain synthetic drugs improve memory, also without entering the brain. How?
SIUC behavioral neuroscientists and psychology professors Robert Jensen and Douglas Smith have discovered that these agents have their effects via the largest cranial nerve, called the vagus nerve.
The vagus starts in the brainstem, runs snugly along the carotid arteries, and then snakes through the abdomen, sending feelers out to all the internal organs. It carries messages about the body’s physiological state up to the brain—how fast the heart is beating, how quickly the lungs are respiring, and so forth. When the body’s arousal level goes up—whether due to fear or elation, anger or anticipation—those messages somehow cue the brain to make the memory of that moment stronger.
Smith, Jensen, and their students have shown that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve can improve people’s memory, and hence learning. They’ve also shown that such stimulation can help lab rats recover much more quickly from brain injury—and they expect the same to be true of you or me.
[Vagus nerve stimulation] may also be achieved by one of the vagal maneuvers: holding the breath for a few seconds, dipping the face in cold water, coughing, or tensing the stomach muscles as if to bear down to have a bowel movement. Patients with supraventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation, and other illnesses may be trained to perform vagal maneuvers (or find one or more on their own)….
Research has shown that women having had complete spinal cord injury can experience orgasms through the vagus nerve, which can go from the uterus, cervix, and, it is presumed, the vagina to the brain.
Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, Brain Longevity (p. 373):
[R]esearch has shown that the chanting of primal tones stimulates the vagus nerve…. It is reasonable to expect that the vagus nerve would be stimulated by chanting, because it passes through the larynx, or voice box.