Vagal tone and the physiological regulation of emotion

Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1994;59(2-3):167-86.


On the basis of current knowledge of neuroanatomy and our previous research with cardiac vagal tone, we have proposed the vagal circuit of emotion regulation. The vagal circuit of emotion regulation incorporates lateral brain function with the regulation of the peripheral autonomic nervous system in the expression of emotion. The vagus and the vagal circuit do not function independently of other neurophysiological and neuroendocrine systems. Research on brain activity (see Dawson, in this volume; Fox, in this volume) and research on adrenocortical activity (see Stansbury & Gunnar, in this volume) demonstrate that EEG and cortisol are related to emotion states and to individual differences similar to those that we have investigated. The vagal circuit emphasizes not only the vagus but also the lateralization of specific brain structures in emotion regulation. The emphasis of the vagal circuit on right-brain-stem structures stimulates several testable hypotheses regarding the function of specific structures in the right brain in emotion regulation. These speculations are consistent with other reports (see Dawson, in this volume; Fox, in this volume) describing asymmetrical EEG activity during expressed emotions. Moreover, the vagal circuit does not exist independently of the brain structures and peptide systems regulating cortisol (see Stansbury & Gunnar, in this volume). Areas in the brain stem regulating vagal activity are also sensitive to the peptides that regulate cortisol (e.g., vasopressin and corticotropin-releasing hormone). In this essay, we have provided information regarding the relation between vagal tone and emotion regulation. A review of research indicates that baseline levels of cardiac vagal tone and vagal tone reactivity abilities are associated with behavioral measures of reactivity, the expression of emotion, and self-regulation skills. Thus, we propose that cardiac vagal tone can serve as an index of emotion regulation. Historically, the vagus and other components of the parasympathetic nervous system have not been incorporated in theories of emotion. Recent developments in methodology have enabled us to define and accurately quantify cardiac vagal tone. Theories relating the parasympathetic nervous system to the expression and regulation of emotion are now being tested in several laboratories.

MeSH terms

  • Affect / physiology
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Vagus Nerve / physiology*