The Life Vessel, the Vagus Nerve, and Transcendent States [22]

In Neurobiology by Dr. Keith Witt

iStock_000001806047XSmall1Becky and her friend Stephanie Badaci own Santa Barbara Life Vessel ( ), which—among other services like Soul Collage, the EVOX machine, Flower Essences, and Educational Kinesiology—offers sessions in a Life Vessel. A Life Vessel is a spacious bamboo container in which you lie down for an hour under soothing multi-colored lights while delicious music flows in from all directions. I’ve had a bunch of sessions, which generally induce transcendent states with sound and light. As someone who has been meditating and doing healing ceremonies since 1965, I’m familiar with quite a range of transcendent experiences, and the Life Vessel hands you powerful variations of such states effortlessly. All you have to do is lie down. Transcendent states can arise out of extreme stress or deep, peaceful centering. Extreme stress states that might involve transcendent feelings could include a boxer at the end of a bout, a law student just finishing the bar, or a fireman saving someone from a burning building. Transcendent feelings arising from peaceful centering usually involve your brain/mind/body system in harmony, and especially your autonomic nervous system, which relaxes you when you feel safe (the parasympathetic branch), and energizes you for flight or fight when you’re in danger (the sympathetic branch). Optimized autonomic nervous system activations—including high heart rate variability and coherence—are often associated with pleasurable feelings like joy, gratitude, and deep unity. A primary player in this blissful process is the vagus nerve, and Becky asked me to describe how the vagus connects our brains, hearts, faces, voices, and bodies in mutually influencing circuits—so, here we go. Our tenth cranial nerve—the vagus nerve. The vagus is the tenth cranial nerve extending from brainstem to heart and viscera. It is a parasympathetic nerve, primarily involved in calming things down in your heart, intestines, and other organs. The vagus contains powerful circuits connecting the heart, brain, face, voice, and body as they respond to other people and the world. Meditation, deep relaxation, and just self-soothing all activate parasympathetic vagal calming of the heart into smooth, rhythmic responses to moment-to-moment demands. Your heart adjusts with slightly faster or slightly slower beating within the space of a few heartbeats when needed. In contrast, scary events activate your sympathetic nervous system to feed you energy to fight or get out of Dodge right now! For example, while hiking in the woods, you see a stick that looks like a snake right by your foot. Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and you jump back, alarmed, and your heart instantly beats faster. Your sympathetic nervous system was just activated by your brain to get you jacked up and in motion away from danger. In a second, you see it’s a stick, and relax a little, but your hands are still shaking and your heart is hammering (you’re really afraid of snakes). You take a deep breath (which partially activates your vagus), laugh at yourself (which puts your facial muscles into shapes that create pleasurable emotions in your brain) and tell yourself, “It’s just a stick. Relax, it’s a beautiful day, get back to your hike.” Your left prefrontal cortex—the front part of your brain behind your eyes that guides conscious awareness—is cuing your vagus to send soothing messages to your heart, which slows and becomes more highly variable. Now, it will only speed up when you’re walking up hill and your body’s metabolic demands require pumping more oxygen. When you have high vagal tone (a well developed vagal connection between the brain and the heart), the vagus is exquisitely tuned to the present moment, only upping and lowering metabolic activity when needed. In addition, high vagal tone means that the beats aren’t just in rhythm with the moment, they are also smoother, or more coherent. A coherent heartbeat on an EKG looks smooth as the lines go up and down. A heartbeat that’s not coherent is more jagged, as if the heart is at odds with itself—like it’s trying to get excited and calm down simultaneously. The Life Vessel supports high vagal tone, which is another term for high heart rate variability and coherence. Contrary to popular belief, the autonomic nervous system (which includes the two branches—our get-excited sympathetic and let’s-calm-down parasympathetic) does not do best balanced—it does best harmonious. “Harmony” means the right system is activated in the right way at the right time in the right amount. We want sympathetic dominance when we need to be amped up, and parasympathetic dominance when we need to be calmed down. The nervous system is biased towards defense, which primarily involves powering up. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors who were extra cautious and quicker to attack or flee from threats were more likely to survive and reproduce. This makes the parasympathetic vagus huge, because our self-aware, super-sensitive, existing-simultaneously-in-the-past/present/future brains tell us there are threats everywhere. You think about the car accident you had last month, the presentation you have to give tomorrow, or the guy who just cut you off on the freeway, and your brain reacts like it’s happening right now. We desperately need the ability to check out the world and calm down when things are OK. This allows us to walk in harmony with the moment, and to adjust quickly back to feeling safe (high vagal tone) when appropriate—which is almost all the time because, fundamentally, we are almost always safe. The car accident was last month, the presentation is tomorrow and will go fine, and the guy who cut us off is miles away and was probably just having a bad day. Paul MacLean proposed the “triune brain” of brain stem, limbic midbrain, and cortex being essentially three brains connected together.  Our brain stem is our “lizard brain,” running basic survival needs, our midbrain our “mammalian brain,” which can feel and relate, and our cortex is our seat of human consciousness. Joseph Chilton Pearce in his wonderful book, The Biology of Transcendence, says we have two more brains. The first is our expanded frontal cortex (especially the prefrontal cortex I mentioned earlier) that was possibly not fully developed till forty thousand years ago—a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. This milestone—a fully developed prefrontal cortex—was probably the spark that ignited human development. Since then, for better or worse, we have become the major players in how life, nature, and evolution progresses on this planet. Pearce believes the vagal loop from the brain to the heart and back to the brain is a fifth brain, needing certain life circumstances to become fully developed. Our hearts actually have opinions about decisions and actions. The two questions—if considered—“Does this feel good in my heart?” and “Does this not feel good in my heart?” can develop into deep wisdom if practiced throughout a lifetime. This is the classic yum/yuck appraisal system offered by our fifth brain. The most awesome thing about the five-brain idea is that each brain subsumes and transcends the brains before. This means if we maintain high vagal tone and listen to our hearts, we’re probably harmonizing the whole five-brain system. The whole here is much greater than the sum of the parts. The Life Vessel induces high vagal tone—an optimal state in our fifth brain and one of the best single indicators of general good health. This state is maintained for the one-hour session, constellating neural networks associated with high vagal tone, and entraining the harmonious dance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. Bodies love high vagal tone, and they let us know by generating all kinds of pleasure when we’re in harmonious states of coherent, high heart rate variability. I think this is why the Life Vessel is almost always blissful—our bodies are saying, “Yes! Yes! This is what I like!” Especially cool for me was an experience I had after my tenth Life Vessel session. That weekend, I walked out into the sunshine of our front deck, looked out over Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands, felt a familiar bliss, and thought to myself, “The world is my life vessel!”