The Vagus Nerve and Work Performance

This blog originally appeared on the University of Western Australia’s Business School Blog and is a laypersons overview of what my PhD was about.

What does your heart have to do with it?

Has it ever occurred to you that how well you do at work might just be connected to the variability in your heartbeat?  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 vagus nerve that connects your brain to many of your major organs.  The term vagus 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 heartbeat, 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.  However more recent research shows you can (probably) lift vagal tone via exercise, yoga, and even special breathing techniques, or lower it in similar but reverse ways, or by having vodka on your corn flakes every day.

Some of this research (way back in 2012) got my PhD supervisor Kerrie Unsworth and later me thinking … surely all this stuff (I mean cognitive performance, happiness, social stuff) is going to have an influence on work performance.  And so my PhD was born and named “The Wanderer: Vagal Tone to Worker Performance”.  ‘She’ has been recently submitted and I eagerly await the reviewers feedback, after which I will share more with you on the findings.  For now here is a four part series on HRV and how you can measure and improve it yourself.

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