The vagus nerve is IN CHARGE. It makes up the parasympathetic nervous system, which you probably learned about in high school biology, but researchers have been paying a lot more attention to it in the last 30 or so years. But why, as performers, do we care?
In short, the vagus nerve (or one part of it, anyway) decides whether we can breathe easily, whether our heart rate is reasonable, whether we can access our facial expressions, voice, and movement. Important, right?
Let’s dig in a little…
We used to think that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) had two parts: a gas pedal and a brake pedal. We learned that the sympathetic system revved us up into a ‘fight or flight’ response, and that’s still accepted as true. We also learned that the parasympathetic system calmed us down, but that part has gotten a lot clearer in the last few decades of research. Stephen Porges work on the parasympathetic system presents a new idea, the Polyvagal Theory, that shows the vagus nerve having two branches, the dorsal and the ventral. The ventral is like a gentle brake in a fuel-injected car: if you let go of the brake, the car will speed up a bit. The ventral vagus acts like an easy brake on our heart, which would go just a little faster if the brake was off. The dorsal vagus is like an emergency brake, slowing all systems way down to conserve energy.
In the picture you can see that the yellow nerve has two branches: the big one that goes down to the heart, lungs and viscera and the smaller one that goes to the heart, lungs, neck and face. The one that connects to the viscera is the dorsal vagus, and the one that connects to the heart, lungs, neck (including larynx) and face is the ventral vagus. That one is called the ‘social engagement system’, and it’s the one we need active to perform. We need the face! We need the larynx! We need the heart beating easy and the breath open and free.
Unfortunately, performing, or being seen and heard, can feel like a threat to some of us, causing either too much rev (sympathetic system fight or flight) or a big shutdown (dorsal vagus activity). Thankfully we can train our nervous systems to stay in social engagement more often! My webinar Vaporize Your Butterflies explains all this in the context of performing and gives participants strategies and practices for building more helpful ANS responses. Contact me to book this experience for your ensemble.