We Knew It All Along! Vagal Nerve Tone and Health and the Lifelong Benefits of Camp

Bob Ditter

We have all seen them — gaggles of teens walking together, each one looking at his or her own mobile phone screen; or couples out at dinner, one checking the e-mails on his Blackberry, the other checking posts and tweets on her iPhone. Screens have become ubiquitous in our society. According to a Pew technology study, 78 percent of children ages twelve to seventeen in the United States have a cell phone. They use it as a phone about one-third of the time (Rainie, 2012). Otherwise, they are texting, tweeting, checking their Instagrams, or taking and sending pictures.

According to another Pew study on teens, “Teens in general consider their rather high level of connectivity as necessary for effective cultural development and to prevent social isolation” (Madden et al., 2013). What teens tell me, however, is that most of their online activity is something they keep from their parents! We know that even infants are mesmerized by iPads, sometimes preferring the company of all that color and motion and wonderment to that of their own parents. (One quietly wonders what this might mean about those parents!)

A lot has been said and seen about the benefits of our new “anywhere but here” mobile technology, but little has been said about the possible costs. Recent studies from a number of sources are showing that one measurable expense may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people — an ability that has ramifications for health, longevity, and quality of life. In her groundbreaking New York Times spring 2013 op-ed, Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, outlined a significant study she and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had just completed. What Fredrickson found was that people who practiced ways of being more attuned to and connected with one another not only felt more upbeat and socially connected, but had also improved a key part of their cardiovascular system known as “vagal tone” (Fredrickson, 2013b).

Vagus Nerve and the Importance of Vagal Nerve Tone

To understand the tremendous significance of this and other research I refer to in this article, and the implications for children’s summer camp programs, we need a quick lesson in anatomy. Vagal tone refers to the strength and quality of the connection of the vagus nerve, which is the nerve that connects our brains to our hearts. One of ten so-called cranial nerves, the vagus nerve helps regulate our heart and other organs. Generally, the better our vagal nerve tone, the calmer and generally more robust our cardiovascular system.

As Fredrickson points out, “By and large, the higher your vagal tone the better. It means your body is better able to regulate the internal systems that keep you healthy, like your cardiovascular, glucose, and immune responses” (2013a). As I will demonstrate, it is also an important way to measure how socially connected a person is, which in turn is a predictor of how long they will live, how free of depression they will be, how healthy they will be overall, and how quickly they will heal when they do get injured!

Vagal nerve tone is central to things like facial expressivity, or what Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls the “language of face contact.” For example, the average teenage boy in the United States plays sixteen hours of video games a week. By the time a boy is twenty-one, he will have played over 10,000 hours of video games. Compare that to the 4,800 hours of study and class time it takes to earn a bachelor’s degree or the one-hour-a-week average that a young man spends with his father. As Zimbardo says in sounding the alarm, “Boys don’t know the language of face contact — the nonverbal and verbal set of rules that enable you to talk comfortably with another person” — because that language is not taught through video games and smart phones (Zimbardo & Duncan, 2012).

Use It or Lose It

And as we now know, our biological capacity for connecting socially with other people can atrophy if it is not stimulated and used — just like any other muscle or capacity in the human body. As Fredrickson states, “In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become and vice versa. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship, and empathy. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friend-ship also obeys the biological law of ‘use it or lose it.’ If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so” (Fredrickson, 2013b).

In her earlier book on love and attachment, Fredrickson delves into the science of social connectedness more deeply. As she points out, evidence suggests that when we really “click” with someone else, a synchrony emerges between the two of us, as our gestures and biochemistries, even our respective neural firings, come to mirror one another in a pattern Fredrickson calls “positivity resonance” (2013a).

How This Applies to Camp Staff

What she is saying is that when an attentive camp counselor, for example, practices the good skills of connecting with campers — making quality eye contact; speaking directly to them and using their name; using light, reassuring physical touch like a hand on the shoulder; and speaking in an understanding or accepting tone of voice — a “biological wave of good feeling and mutual care rolls through” the brains and bodies of both the camper and the counselor at the same time. “These micro-moments,” Fredrickson continues, “nourish both you and the other person. The more of these micro-moments you each have, the more each of you grows happier, healthier, and wiser” (2013a).

In other words, the better a staff member at camp gets down on campers’ levels physically or takes the time to enter their reality and develop what I have called “money in the bank,” the more the capacity for connection, friendship, and empathy is enhanced in both the counselor and the campers. When this connected, respectful way of dealing with people becomes part of a culture, as it often does at many camps, it actually leaves an imprint on our neural pathways, a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity.”

What this means is, at camp, we not only “teach” social connectivity, we start a trend in campers and counselors alike that lasts for the rest of their lives. That trend is the high value we place on positive, supportive, and loving social connections. As Fredrickson tells us, “Any habit molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.” Look at screens and the chances are good that you will increase your tendency to look at screens. Look at and speak with people face to face in real time and the same is true.

Longevity and Health

One critical importance of social connectedness — a key feature of all children’s summer camps — is that it directly affects longevity and health. Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, recently spelled out the impact in an article in Psychology Today:

Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative, and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health as well as a higher propensity to antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation. (2012)

The sense that people who have greater positive social connections live longer has been known for quite some time. Indeed, one study shows that a lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). The same study shows that strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. Only recently has the biological mechanism for this tendency become known. In a cutting-edge study by Yang Claire Yang, it turns out that people who are more socially connected have more oxytocin and other “positive” hormones, or brain and body chemicals, in their systems, which in turn keep inflammation at a minimum. People who have lower levels of inflammation, or whose immune systems are stronger, have less heart disease, heal more quickly, and live longer (2013).

Fredrickson augments these findings. She notes that, “Decades of research have shown that people who are more socially connected live longer and healthier lives. My research team recently discovered that when we randomly assign one group of people to learn new ways to create more micro-moments of love in daily life, we lastingly improve the functioning of the vagus nerve, a key conduit that connects your brain to your heart. This discovery opens a new window onto how micro- moments of love serve as nutrients for your health” (2013a).

The groundbreaking research she is referring to was recently published in an article in Psychological Science. What their findings say is that the more socially connected people are, which corresponds to higher vagal tone, the easier it is “to generate positive emotions and that this, in turn, drives vagal tone still higher. That is both literally and metaphorically a positive feedback loop” (Kok et al., 2013). Simply said, the more time we spend with others, the stronger our habits of social connection and the greater the chance we have of living with less anxiety and depression, living longer, and living more healthful lives.

Brene Brown, professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, puts it succinctly: “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick” (2012).

Send Them to Camp

What camp directors have known intuitively for years is that camp helps boost a child’s self-esteem, helps children build lifelong friends, and even helps build character traits like grit, self-regulation, and emotional-social intelligence. But what if you as a camp professional could say to a parent that a strong, positive camp experience actually increases vagal tone, which in turn means that it boosts a child’s immune system (making them less susceptible to disease), increases their cardiovascular health, and increases their life expectancy? What if you could say to parents that a child who has positive social connections — friendships that are nurtured and, in turn, strengthen that child’s vagal nerve tone — actually heal faster than children who don’t have a strong sense of social connectivity? That is precisely what current research is telling us.

What we can now say to parents with the research to back it up is, “The next time you see your child spending too much time looking at a screen, send them to camp. Not only will camp build their capacity for friendship and empathy, it will lead to a healthier, longer life.”

Additional Resources

Camping Alone? Connection, Consistency, and Contribution: How Summer Camps Build Social Capital,” by Stephen Wallace, MS Ed, Camping Magazine, September/October 2008.
Camp Counseling in the Twenty-First Century: Connecting the Disconnected,” by Jeffrey Leiken, MA, Camping Magazine, May/June 2011.
Creating a Sense of Community in Camp,” Jeff Jacobs, PhD, ACA e-Institute online course.

References
Brown, B. (2012). The power of vulnerability. TED Talks. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
Fredrickson, B. (2013a). Love 2.0: How our supreme emotion affects everything we think, feel, do, and become. New York, NY: Penguin.
Fredrickson, B. (2013b March 23). Your phone versus your heart. The New York Times Sunday Review.
House, J., Landis, K., & Umberson, R. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science, 241(4865).
Kok, B., et al. (2013). How positive emotions build physical health: Perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychological Science.
Madden, M., et al. (2013). Teens, social media, and privacy. Pew Research & American Life Project. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-and-Tech.aspx
Rainie, L. (2012). Smartphone ownership update: September 2012. Pew Research & American Life Project. Retrieved from www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Smartphone-Update-Sept-2012.aspx
Seppala, E. (2012 August 26). Connect to thrive. Social connection improves health, well-being, and longevity. Psychology Today. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201208/connect-thrive
Yang, C.Y. (2013). Social isolation and adult mortality. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. doi: 10.1177/0022146513485244
Zimbardo, P. & Duncan, N. (2012). The demise of guys: Why boys are struggling and what we can do about it. TED Books.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.

Originally published in the 2013 September/October Camping Magazine. 

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