The Wanderer – Vagal Tone to Worker Performance
This blogs summarises my research and was first publish on the University of Western Australia business school blog in March 2015 and has since received a sum total of zero comments …. feel free to change that below
Original blog below:
Has it ever occurred to you that how well you do at work might just be connected to the variability in your heart beat? I am not sure about you; I always assumed you would want your heart to beat smoothly, rhythmically. However there is an ancient Chinese saying that goes something like this “a man whose heart beats like a drum, will be dead before sundown”. In the 21st century it looks like these chaps were on to something. It turns out we actually want a heartbeat that changes ever so slightly as we breathe in and out.
There is a lot of science and research that explains why this is the case; loosely it goes like this – you have a spectacular nerve
called the vagal nerve that connects your brain to many of your major organs. The term vagal is Latin for wanderer, as indeed this nerve wanders throughout your body. This wanderer is the major component of your parasympathetic nervous system. Among many important functions in your body, this nerve has control over your heart beat, working to slow it as you exhale and speed it up as you inhale. This is a good thing – called high vagal tone. High vagal tone indicates your vagal nerve and wider nervous system are in good shape. As you can well imagine if your nervous system is in good shape, you too are likely to be in good shape. Healthy vagal tone (or high heart rate variability) has been linked to an amazing range of things. It is shown that people with a healthy vagal tone are likely to perform better on cognitive tasks, be happier and perceive themselves as more socially connected.
Now I am sure you are thinking – what can I do to improve my vagal tone? The common belief amongst scientists used to be that you couldn’t improve, that you were born with a good or not so good vagal tone. It was the luck of the draw, if you will. Then some forward thinking women in America rethought this and have since shown that you can raise your vagal tone by, get this – thinking kind and loving thoughts about others! Other researchers have also shown you can lift vagal tone via exercise, yoga, and special breathing techniques.
Next some folks in The University of Western Australia Business School also got thinking. They thought – if there is a physiological way to improve someone’s positive feelings, cognitive performance and sense of social connectivity – surely that is going to affect how they perform at work?
So to cut a very long story, very short, after 17 years as a management consultant, in 2013 I wanted a change but was stuck, where to go next? I had the privilege of meeting Professor Unsworth of the UWA Business School for coffee around this time. She showed me an intriguing article in the New Scientist about what these American women were up to. One thing led to another and my PhD was born. It was named “The Wanderer: Vagal Tone to Worker Performance”.
Kok, B. E., Coffey, K. A., Cohn, M. A., Catalino, L. I., Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Algoe, S. B., . . .
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1123-1132. doi: 10.1177/0956797612470827
Kok, B. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85(3), 432-436. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005