Darwin revisited: The vagus nerve is a causal element in controlling recognition of other's emotions

Cortex. 2017 Jul;92:95-102. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2017.03.017. Epub 2017 Apr 7.


Charles Darwin proposed that via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve, emotional facial expressions are evolved, adaptive and serve a crucial communicative function. In line with this idea, the later-developed polyvagal theory assumes that the vagus nerve is the key phylogenetic substrate that regulates emotional and social behavior. The polyvagal theory assumes that optimal social interaction, which includes the recognition of emotion in faces, is modulated by the vagus nerve. So far, in humans, it has not yet been demonstrated that the vagus plays a causal role in emotion recognition. To investigate this we employed transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), a novel non-invasive brain stimulation technique that modulates brain activity via bottom-up mechanisms. A sham/placebo-controlled, randomized cross-over within-subjects design was used to infer a causal relation between the stimulated vagus nerve and the related ability to recognize emotions as indexed by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test in 38 healthy young volunteers. Active tVNS, compared to sham stimulation, enhanced emotion recognition for easy items, suggesting that it promoted the ability to decode salient social cues. Our results confirm that the vagus nerve is causally involved in emotion recognition, supporting Darwin's argumentation.

Keywords: Emotion recognition; RMET; Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Face / physiology
  • Facial Expression*
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation / methods
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*
  • Vagus Nerve Stimulation* / methods
  • Young Adult