Lately, I’ve been investigating the healing power of acts of compassion on the person doing the giving, and the profound effect it can have on your immune system.
This effect all has to do with the function of 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.
Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at University of California at Berkeley, says that 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.
The vagus nerve also connects the brain to every organ involved in digestion and it’s a central communicator between the brain and body.
Dacher Kelter has found that this key nerve gets activated whenever we engage in our higher emotions: altruism, kindness and compassion. He’s also shown that activation of the vagus nerve helps to nurture universal love in a person and a greater acceptance of differences between the self and the other.
If oxytocin is the “love hormone,” as it is generally referred to, the vagus nerve, maintains Keltner, is the love nerve.
But when it’s activated, as when we show compassion or gratitude, it’s also the healing nerve.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of this was produced by researchers at Vrije University in Brussels, who reviewed 12 studies involving 1,822 cancer patients. They’d monitored heart rate variability (HRV), which is an indicator both of the health of the heart and of vagus nerve activity.
What they found was extraordinary. The higher the vagus nerve activity, the slower the cancer progressed in these patients, no matter what type of cancer they had.
This was particularly evident with patients suffering from advanced cancer that had spread.
In biological terms, activating the vagus nerve and increasing levels of oxytocin has a marked healing effect on the body.
David Hamilton, the former medical researcher and author of Why Kindness Is Good for You, made a study of the healing effects of increased oxytocin levels and found evidence that high levels of the hormone lower inflammation and boost the immune system, aid digestion, lower blood pressure, heal wounds faster, and even repair damage to the heart after a heart attack.
Oxytocin plays a key role in turning undifferentiated stem cells into mature cells, which also help in repair and renewal.
This would partly explain why a healthy vagus nerve has such a profound effect on cancer survival.
And we’ve discovered repeatedly in my Power of Eight and Intention Experiments that people experience instant healings of every variety—including from cancer—when they get off of themselves and send intention to the other.
It’s clear that altruism brings out all the loftier emotions in us; it might be the emotion that most defines our humanity—our sense of a life well lived—and gives our life a sense of meaning.
But clearly, it’s more than a feel-good exercise. The powerfully transformational mechanisms at work in my healing intention groups may be the unique power of group prayer coupled with a deliberate focus away from the self.
In seeing yourself in the other, in joining together as one, other people, it turns out—particularly a small group of them praying with you—could be your salvation, even from cancer.