Exploring the Mind-Body Connection

During guided meditations we often focus on thoughts, emotions and feelings.  We use an anchor such as the sensations of breathing, sounds, sensations in the body in a body scan to bring us back to the present moment. “Let them come, let them be, let them go” is a phrase we use. In a compassion or loving kindness meditation we can engage with empathy as we say the words “May you my friend be happy well and at peace.”  Our minds are complex and there is often a lot going on but what is the connection with the physical brain, the nervous system and the body itself?  How does meditation help us deal with the stresses and strains of our lives? This short article shows how the mind connects with the body through the nervous system.

There are three components of the brain that have evolved over millions of years.  The New Brain provides us with imagination and creativity, the ability to look back and forward, to plan but also to ruminate. It provides us with self-awareness, self-identity and self-feeling. The Social Brain provides us with the need for care and affection, to empathise, to be kind and compassionate.  It enables us to be socially responsive and altruistic. The Old Brain provides us with our complex set of emotions: anger, anxiety, sadness, joy, lust.  It helps us create basic relationships based on sex, attachment and tribalism. Sometimes these can by out of balance causing us worry and anxiety. If things get really out of hand the amygdala can be hijacked causing anger and rage. 

Professor Paul Gilbert links these three aspects of the brain to three interacting systems.

The brain connects with the somatic nervous system which enables movement.  It also connects with the autonomic nervous system which seeks to maintain all our body systems such as heart rate and breathing in a steady state and able to react to changing conditions. There is a complex network of cranial nerves that are part of this autonomic nervous system that reach out from the brain to all parts of the head and body. Whilst the sympathetic system is linked to activation, the vagus or 10th cranial nerve provides the parasympathetic linked to slowing down and relaxing. It innervates all the major organs in the body. Vagus is from the Latin for wanderer.

There is a third pathway which reacts to extremes of experience and acts to shut systems down.  So it’s the freeze or faint when you get a fright.  Useful if you get surprised by a venomous snake!

Vagal tone describes the level of activity in the nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal  tone means that your body can relax faster after stress. Vagal tone is also associated with health, and people with low tone are not as good as those with high tone in regulating blood glucose.  This, linked to poor suppression of inflammation, can lead to heart disease, stroke and diabetes with a possible strong link between vagal tone and cardiovascular disease.

Studies have been undertaken where adults monitored their positive emotions and degree of connectedness. Those with higher levels of vagal tone reported increased connectedness and positive emotions.  Another study considered the impact of loving kindness meditation on vagal tone, emotions and social connection and found a strong correlation between increased vagal tone and the level of positive emotions. It has also been found that people with high cardiac vagal tone were better able to cope with stress and less likely to disengage to regulate negative emotions.

In practice, both systems work as accelerator and decelerator. The sympathetic nervous system accelerates and activates us as the parasympathetic nervous system helps us relax. This can work fine but sometimes these two opposing systems can get out of balance. The chart in Figure 1 illustrates the Polyvagal Theory developed by Professor Stephen Porges and shows how the drive system of the sympathetic system is balanced by the by the soothing nature of the parasympathetic system.

( SNS= Sympathetic Nervous System, VVC=Ventral Vagal Complex, DVC=Dorsal Vagal Complex)

In a calm, balanced mind there is a balance between the three systems in the brain and between the action of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. There is a synergy between practices that can enhance vagal tone and impact on the soothing system.  Professor Paul Gilbert brings together these properties of the vagus nerve with the three interacting systems of the brain to create what he calls the Three Circle Model in the Figure below.

So how does this connect with mindfulness practices? How can I influence the vagus nerve which is part of the Autonomic Nervous System? Paul Gilbert and Stephen Porges have found that practices such as loving kindness and compassion meditations and mindful movement such as yoga, tai chi and Pilates have a positive impact on the soothing part of the brain and bring about an increase in the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system which brings about relaxation, calm, tranquillity and or equanimity.

It’s not just mindfulness has this impact. Christopher Bergland lists the following activities as having  a positive impact on vagal tone and the relaxing impact of the parasympathetic nervous system.


•Tensing stomach muscles.  Building core strength

•Humming, singing, chanting


•Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing,

•Visualisation of calming scene. For example a lake or a lovely view.

•Eating in a relaxed state

•Chewing food well

•Washing your face with cold water, cold showers/baths

•Probiotics(there is a link between the biome, the gut flora, and the vagus)