Source: Laboratories of Jonas T. Kaplan and Sarah I. Gimbel—University of Southern California
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls the activity of the body's internal organs and regulates changes in their activity depending on the current environment. The vagus nerve, which innervates many of the internal organs, is an important part of the system. When our brain senses danger, vagal tone is inhibited, leading to a set of changes in the body designed to make us more prepared to fight or flee; for example, our heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, and we breath more quickly. Conversely, when the vagal system is activated, these physiological responses are inhibited, leading to a calmer state. The vagus nerve, then, acts as a kind of "brake" on our arousal. One interesting consequence of this calmer state is that it tends to promote social interaction-when we are not tensed and afraid of our immediate environment we are instead receptive to interacting with others. Poor functioning of this regulatory mechanism, therefore, may be associated with difficulties in social behavior.
One index of autonomic regulation is heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measure of how much the gap between one beat and the next varies over time. High HRV means there are continual fluctuations in the …