After all the continuing hate and vitriol over the elections in the US and the UK, all of us are left wondering how on earth we will ever bring both sides back together.
Recently, I discovered an ingeniously rapid way to heal divisions between people in the work of Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California at Berkeley.
Keltner is fascinated by the vagus nerve, one of the longest of the body, which originates at the top of the spinal cord and works its way through the heart, the lungs, the muscles of the face, the liver and the digestive organs.
The vagus nerve has three functions: to connect with all the communication systems involved with caretaking; to slow down your heart rate, calming the effects of any fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system activity, the body’s response to stress of any sort; and to initiate the release of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a role in love, trust, intimacy and devotion.
If oxytocin is the ‘love hormone,’ the vagus nerve is the love nerve, a hypothesis given weight by the work of Chris Oveis, one of Keltner’s UC Berkeley graduate students.
The love nerve and universal love
Chris wanted to determine whether or not activation of the love nerve helps to nurture universal love in a person and a greater acceptance of differences between the self and the other, and to do so, he set up a unique type of research project involving a batch of his fellow university students.
During the study, Chris showed one group of student participants photos of malnourished children –the ultimate of the world’s victims. As soon as the students saw the photos, their vagus nerves went into high gear.
The same effect was not produced in another set of students, who were shown photos designed to elicit be-true-to-your-school pride, such as images of landmarks on campus or U Cal sporting events.
But the most interesting effect occurred when the students were shown photos of 20 other groups of strangers who were markedly different from them: Democrats, Republicans, saints, convicted felons, terrorists, the homeless, even students from their strong competitor, Stanford University.
Those students love-bombed by their own vagus nerve reported feeling a far greater sense of similarity to all the disparate groups than those who’d been exposed to photos designed to elicit pride.
Activity of the vagus nerve helped to remove a boundary of separation, causing the students to focus more on similarities rather than differences, and those feelings of similarities increased, the more intensely their vagus nerves fired.
Even students identifying themselves as Democrats suddenly recognized the similarities between themselves and Republicans.
Igniting common humanity
A closer look at the results revealed something even more fascinating: this group of students felt the greatest sense of common humanity to all those in need – the homeless, the ill, the elderly – whereas those whose sense of pride had been activated identified themselves far more with the strongest and most affluent groups, such as lawyers or other private university students.
Instead of identifying with the people most like us, when the vagus nerve is fired, we are prompted to feel closer to the other, particularly the people in need of our help – and more prone to reach out to them.
You want to heal the divisions in your country? Stare at the pictures of the children in Aleppo for a few minutes, and then go pay a visit to someone who voted for the other side.
A meditation to open your heart to the other
Research at Stanford University discovered similar effects in a group of volunteers being trained in a simple Buddhist loving-kindness meditation.
Here’s how to do it.
Focus your attention to your heart, as though you are sending light to it. Observe the light spreading from your heart to the rest of your body. Send a loving thought to yourself, such as ‘May I be well and free from suffering.’
On the out breath, imagine a white light radiating outward from your heart. As you do, think: ‘I appreciate the kindnesses and love of all living creatures. May all others be well.’
As Buddhists recommend, first think of all those you love, then your good friends. Move on to acquaintances and finally to those people you actively dislike. For each stage, think: ‘May they be well and free from suffering.’
Concentrate on the kindness and compassion of all living things and their contribution to your well-being. Finally, send your message of compassion to all people and living things on earth.
Just a simple statement about expressing love for all living things activates the love nerve and prompts a person to put those statements into action in the world.
May you be blessed with health, joy, abundance and a compassionate spirit this holiday season.