Love, kindness and compassion are gifts that reach deep within our bodies, altering the expression of our DNA, driving health and happiness.
I sometimes picture myself as a scientist on Mother Nature’s design team as she worked to develop the miraculous creature we know today as the human being. In my fantasy world, the work of this imaginary team of scientists was almost exclusively focused on producing the massive, advanced brain that is our greatest asset today. Not surprisingly, most of my work today as an executive coach who helps individuals and teams to be the best possible version of themselves is focused on their neurobiology. Understanding this science is the difference between leading a happy and successful life, or a gloomy life of misery and failure.
Much of my writing to date has focused on the cognitive brain—the massive cerebral cortex (our gray matter), that allows us to think and reason. This is Mother Nature’s greatest gift, and differentiates us from all other living creatures, including early mammals like dogs, horses and dolphins. When we understand the potential of the cognitive brain, which is under our complete voluntary control, we can contemplate success. I call this the Power of BELIEF. When we master belief, we bring prosperity, in its broadest possible interpretation, within reach.
Mother Nature gave us another major gift, also housed within our complex brain. When we understand the science of our emotional brain, we can unlock the Power of LOVE, with very tangible benefits.
Before we explore our unique endowments, let’s contemplate the lives of our reptilian ancestors, who lack both of these special neurological powers.
Snakes and lizards are cold-blooded creatures with tiny heads. Mother Nature and her team programmed the primitive reptilian brain with instincts for fight and flight. The currency of the reptilian brain is fear, and it sends messages of alarm down the spinal cord ensuring the appropriate behavioral response from remote body parts.
The reptilian brain is alive and well deep inside of our advanced human brains. It’s our default mode in times of stress and duress. You know the feelings well. If you’re anxious, scared, or angry your primitive reptilian is hard at work. That’s ok for short bursts of survival-related activity, but when prolonged, it has disastrous consequences for your health and happiness!
But let’s return to Mother Nature’s design laboratory. She was frustrated at the enormous wastage of the design of our reptilian ancestors. They give birth to large numbers of tiny babies, hoping desperately that a few would survive. Hundreds, even thousands, would die before reaching adulthood. The adults lived isolated, lonely lives, surviving on their individual skills. She challenged the team to improve on this design.
The problem was these creatures were programed to stay away from others to survive. By design, they were ruled by suspicion and fear. The solution was obvious. If they could be programmed to have an affinity for their offspring and each other, then the new and improved version would have two functional advantages. First, they would nurture their young. This would enable them to have fewer babies, investing many hours, even years into raising complex, competent adults with a much higher survival rate. Second, they would collaborate with other adults. They would team together, pooling resources to enhance group survival. They would be more efficient and more effective.
Although the social advance was easy to picture, the underlying biological design was far more complicated to achieve.
The first step was to build the emotional brain, adding the capacity for affection. The emotional brain comprises several specialized centers with elaborate scientific names. It is sufficient for us to consider this to be a single entity.
The next step was to connect the emotional brain with the rest of the body, linking the command center with the arms, legs and organs that would act out the new, loving behaviors. To do this, Mother Nature constructed two bridges—one chemical, using hormones that spread through the bloodstream to distant sites; the other electrical, using a brand-new system of nerves, specifically designed for non-urgent signaling.
Hormones are special chemicals, proteins actually, that are produced by specialized glands, and are secreted into the blood stream. When in the blood, they circulate throughout the body, bathing all tissues equally. Certain cells and organs have specialized receptors for these chemical messengers, inducing very specific actions at the target site. It’s an effective way to get diffuse signals deep into our body.
So, Mother Nature built a hormone we call Oxytocin. Given her genius, she designed it to perform a wide range of biological tasks, all advantageous to modern human beings. In the first place, Oxytocin induces a range of pro-social feelings, such as affection, trust and empathy, while reducing fear and anxiety. These benefits allow us to enjoy social proximity with others, leading to the colloquial name for this powerful chemical: the “love hormone”. More than this, oxytocin is also involved in procreation—in the act of conception where it plays a role in bonding, arousal and orgasm, the act of parturition (or birth) where it induces contraction of the thick muscular wall of the uterus, and in breast-feeding where it stimulates the release of milk from the mammary glands. Interestingly, the direct effect during childbirth proves extremely useful, because the muscles of the uterus must work much harder to expel our big-headed offspring through the relatively narrow birth canal. A distinct evolutionary advantage.
In her genius, Mother Nature didn’t stop there. She also empowered Oxytocin with some very important responsibilities with significant impact on our overall health. This magical hormone also suppresses levels of certain pro-inflammatory cytokines, the chemical messengers that promote degeneration and decay. By moderating the fire of inflammation, Oxytocin promotes healing and regeneration—two critical elements of wellbeing. That’s right, love and the act of loving fights degeneration and decay, making us not only happy, but healthy too!
The second big enhancement designed to bridge our new and improved brains with our obedient bodies was an upgrade to our nervous system. You remember the nerves of fear that travel through the spinal cord to the body? We call this the sympathetic nervous system, and it enables flight and fright. Well, there’s an opposing system of relaxation called the parasympathetic nervous system. The nerves in this system exit the brain before the spinal cord, and carry messages to the body to put it into a state of relaxation—the so-called “rest-and-digest” or “breed-and-feed” modes.
These significant neurological upgrades all took place in a giant parasympathetic nerve called the Vagus nerve.
Modern scientists first understood the most blatant effects of nerve messages that travel down the Vagus nerve. It slows the heart and gets the intestines working, putting the body into a relaxed mode for regeneration. The Vagus nerve slows us down, inviting the cells of repair to get to work, while our gastro-intestinal system stocks up on vital energy and nutrients. This physical state also takes us off the high-alert induced by the sympathetic nervous system, favoring social connectivity.
Again, Mother Nature didn’t stop with the obvious. She ensured that the Vagal override that takes place only in mammals has much deeper benefits too, including dramatic impact on some very special genes. The most recent fibers of the Vagus nerve that travel above the diaphragm (the so-called supra-diaphragmatic Vagus) invokes profound changes in the activity of genes that regulate inflammation and immunity. Researchers have shown how feelings of deep emotional wellbeing (known as eudemonic wellbeing to distinguish it from a more superficial feeling of satisfaction, known as hedonic wellbeing) activate genes that promote healing, recovery and a healthy immune system, and switch off genes that cause inflammation and degeneration.
The overt purpose is simple. When we’re in danger, we may need inflammatory cells to cope with acute injury, and we can’t waste energy in long-term restorative processes. But, when there is no danger, under the influence of the Vagus nerve, our bodies get to work fighting cancer, preventing degeneration and restoring healthy tissue in vital organs like the heart and brain.
Systemic inflammation is toxic. When our inflammatory system goes into a state of prolonged hyperactivity, it induces degeneration and decay; it causes diseases like atherosclerosis and heart disease, diabetes, degenerative brain diseases like dementia, and even cancer! So, a combination of high inflammation and low immunity can be disastrous.
Mother Nature gave us the Power of Love, and the Vagus nerve to stay happy, and healthy!
We can see the superlative wisdom of Mother Nature at work in this powerful cycle! Having decided that there was a better way for us to live, she not only built the hardware and the software we need for our new lifestyle, but she also created a powerful incentive and reward system. Health and happiness are both the lure and the prize. When we do what Mother Nature intends us to do, when we honor our natural design by loving and caring for others, we are rewarded with the very things we crave – health and happiness. It’s pure genius!
Now here is the fascinating chapter in the history of the Vagus nerve. For many years, even centuries, we have seen the benefits of certain behaviors, often included in religious rituals.
Singing, chanting and praying out loud are all common elements of many religions. What the early practitioners didn’t know, but discovered empirically, was that these all stimulate the Vagus nerve! Similarly, deep breathing, especially prolonged exhalation which is a common meditative practice, stimulates the Vagus nerve. Finally, self-effacing, respectful postures like bending, bowing and kneeling all stimulate pressure receptors in the Vagus nerve, inducing its downstream benefits. So, ancient religious leaders discovered a powerful biology that we’re only just beginning to explain today.
What’s in all this science for WHealth Seekers—for those of us interested in unlocking health and happiness?
The message is crystal clear. When we honor our natural design, when we do as Mother Nature intended, she rewards us with health and happiness.
So, here is my advice for a life of abundance:
- Sing out loud!
- Breathe deeply, with prolonged exhalation!
- Play a musical instrument, especially a brass or wind instrument!
- Get down on your knees and pray! Or if you don’t want to pray, then get down on the floor and do yoga, or stretch and meditate!
- Control your stress levels, allowing your Vagus nerve the freedom to operate!
- And, love without restraint!
Simple, right? And you won’t just feel better. You will substantially reduce your risk of devastating disease and premature death. You get health, happiness and longevity … it’s a no-brainer!