Viva Las Vagus

You know, for 60, 70 years we’ve been studying fight-or-flight physiology. “Oh, we’re wired to fight or flee in life.” You know? And that was a sense of what physiology was — it’s really about self-preservation. And we made progress in understanding cortisol and the amygdala, the threat-related region of the brain, and blood pressure.

From a podcast with Dacher Keltner. (transcript)

They talk about the vagus nerve, only it is pronounced like vegas and I am wondering why would they call this nerve vegas… What does Las Vegas have that could have anything at all to do with this nerve… I kept walking, and listening, and couldn’t figure it out. And this nerve sounded amazing: 

Your body has the vagus nerve. And we call it the autonomic nervous system. There are all these bundles of nerves coming out of your spinal cord that affect blood flow and digestion and muscle contractions and glucose and so forth. And the vagus nerve is part of that system. It’s a mammalian bundle of nerves. It stretches from the top of your spinal cord. It wanders through your heart and lungs and digestive organs.

It ties everything together…

And receives all this information from the microbiome. It is the mind-body nexus. And we just hadn’t studied it. 

And then our lab started to get into the act — that when you feel compassion, the vagus nerve is activated because it slows your heart rate. It opens you up to other people. It allows you to vocalize, it allows you to look at people in the eyes. When we meditate, the vagus nerve is activated.

Sound Mind

I have been listening to Of Sound Mind, by Nina Kraus. The subtitle is How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World. I borrowed the audiobook because it was readily available while there was a considerable waiting list for the ebook. The audiobook is read expertly, but with a little too much drama for my taste, and I wonder whether I would have enjoyed reading the book more.

Link to a NPR piece.
Link to an 8′ audio piece on the book, also on NPR
Link to Brainvolts, the lab Nina Kraus leads.

In my opinion this book establishes beyond any doubt that music needs to be taught in every school. Playing music, with or without talent, improves everything, from motor control to visual correlation, to sound and speech decoding, group action etc. etc.

One remarkable story followed a group of Benedictine Monks who, after a Vatican edict, were ordered to stop chanting. They became unhappy and physically unwell, and some became sick. When the edict was overturned, and the monks started chanting again, these effects were reversed.

I found especially fascinating that the pathways between the ears and brain are two way streets, something I had long wondered about. This means that the pathways don’t just transport information gathered by the ears to the brain, but that the brain also sends instructions to the ear. The brain can for examples turn the volume down, by literally telling the tiny hairs that collect the sound to be less excited, or tune the ears to particular frequencies.

Highly recommended book.


We remember the information contained in handwritten notes better than notes typed into a computer. Perhaps it is the hand motion, perhaps it is because we are actually forming the letters instead of simply selecting them from a keyboard. Writing (vs selecting) is deeper work and therefore more easily remembered.

It would follow that writing on a stone with hammer and chisel would be even more memorable?

I’m going to find me a nice block of stone to carry with me.

Sound can blunt pain

A fascinating new study has shed light on the phenomenon of using sound for pain relief. Using state-of-the-art brain-imaging techniques an international team of researchers has uncovered the neural mechanism by which sound reduces pain sensitivity, and surprisingly, low volumes were more effective than turning the music up loud.

Sound can blunt pain in an unexpected way

play it low and play it slow…


A Key Concept for Neurodiversity: Niche Construction
When I suggest that neurodiverse individuals, such as those with autism or ADHD, might have been labeled gifted in other times and in other cultures, the quick retort is: “Well, we don’t live in other times or cultures. People have to adapt to the culture they’re in right now.” So what does the person who is a round peg have to do to fit into a square hole? Answer: Shave off enough of its wood to fit, uncomfortably, usually, into the square hole. That’s one solution. The other solution is to round off some of the square hole so that the round peg can stay a round peg and still fit in. That’s niche construction. In other words, I’m saying that people with neurodiverse brains can create special niches for themselves where they can be their unique selves. An example would be a person with ADHD in a job that requires novelty, thrills, and creativity. Instead of suffering in a 9 to 5 desk job (an example of poor niche construction), they create a career for themselves that allows them to be who they are. Another example: a person on the autistic spectrum who has keen mathematical skill working as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley, instead of wasting away in a group home somewhere. Niche construction is what animals have done for eons: the bird building a nest, the beaver building a dam. They’re modifying the environment to suit their unique needs. We need to make niche construction a key tool in improving the lives of individuals with autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, mood disorders, schizophrenia, and other neurological conditions. Yes, there will always be the need to adapt to the way the world is, and there are medications, behavior modification programs, and other adaptational programs that can help accomplish this. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we can also help neurodiverse individuals be who they are and still fit in.
(Via Neurodiversity – The Book)

Temple Grandin spoke brilliantly on that theme at TED. Check this out: