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How the Mind Modulates the Autonomic Nervous System

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Published: Mon, 02 Apr 2018

  • Jonathan Lewis


Mind modulation of the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System) is essential to how we live our daily lives. The reaction between our brain, brain stem, and different glands and nerves in our body is imperative to how we react to things or even go through daily routines. As usual with humans, we are not perfect and have issues such as “psychosomatic problems” which lead to unwanted responses to stimuli or stress (Rossi). The process in which the mind modulates the cells which produce these effects is broken down into three stages: mind generated thoughts and processes; the filtration of these impulses via state-dependent memory, limbic-hypothalamic system, and transduction into the neurotransmitters which regulate the ANS, then the branching of the ANS into the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems; the previous systems then regulate neurotransmitters which cause us to have our thoughts, feelings, actions, etc (Rossi). This being a rather skim over the information regarding Mind Modulations, we will take a dive into the current research on this subject.

As we have covered, the mind modulates individual cells in order to produce an effect. This has recently been demonstrated via an experiment where the brain was stimulated in order to lower the exhaustion of exercise, in this case, cycling. Non-invasive brain stimulation was used via anodal tDCS or sham stimulation on ten trained cyclists (Okano). These participants were highly skilled in cycling with 10-11 years of training, each of these participants completed an intensive cycling exercise test which followed the stimulation of the brain. The perceived exertion regulate exercise performance (RPE), heart rate (HR), and R-R intervals were recorded during the tests as well as peak power output (PPO) (Okano). The results from the experiment showed promise as with anodal tDCS, their PPO improved by approximately 4%, parasympathetic vagal withdrawal was delayed, their HR was reduced (but not maximized), and their RPE increased at a slower rate (but not maximized) compared to no stimulation (Okano). This experiment, conducted in 2013, shows a very promising connection between the brain and the ANS via mind modulation of the cells, leaving us more prepared to search for other means of altering or enhancing this process for more optimal performance.

As stated before the mind modulates the ANS via an enormous process which starts through signals sent from the brain. One of these “senders” is the vagus nerve. When your body is hurt, your vagus nerve sends a signal which acts as a counter-inflammatory role (Karimi). In Karimi’s experiment, which took place in 2011, they used vitro stimulation in order to showed that “following subdiaphragmatic vagotomy of mice, CD4+ T cells from the spleen proliferated at a higher rate and produced more pro-inflammatory cytokines” (Karimi). In order to restore the cell responses to control level, they administered nicotine and treated the non-vagotomized animals with a nicotinic receptor antagonist which has the potential to mimic the previous effects showed by preforming vagotomy (Karimi). This experiment is another great supporting piece of material towards the role of the mind modulation in the ANS. The ability to stimulate introduce a treatment to the brain (or its regions) to change a cells reaction is what mind modulation is all about, and this experiment does nothing but supports it.

In another recent experiment published in 2011 regarding the effect of lavender aromatherapy on the ANS in midlife women with insomnia, we bump into more supporting experiments and new information regarding the mind modulation of the ANS. During the process in which the experiment was being conducted primarily to observe the beneficial effects of lavender on insomnia, it was recorded that, using neuroimaging techniques, the brain had a role in correlation with the ANS (Chien). This lead to the use of a combination of continuous use of ECG monitoring and PET examination in order to detect changes of the ANS and to monitor local cerebral activity during lavender aromatic immersion (Chien). After examining the recordings and data, they noted increases in the parasympathetic tone after the lavender fragrance stimulus increased in the HF component and decreased in the LF/HF components (Chien). Using the PET simultaneously with the immersion suggests that the treatment with lavender aromatic immersion not only induced relaxation, but increased the arousal level in the participants as well (Chien). As most experiments go, there were some questions left behind such as “was the effect caused by psychological processes or direct pharmacological effects?” Due to the lacking chronic effect, the data indicates that further investigation must take place before we can be sure on the psychological interaction with physiological mechanisms (Chien).

Placebos are a gateway to the abolishment of the dangerous drugs we encounter on a day to day. A placebo can replace prescription medicines and still work just as well as if we were pumping the harmful chemicals straight into our body. Seeing as how they stem from psychology, we must be curious to if they have any effects on the mind modulation of the ANS. In an article published in 2011, this is just what we examined. Meissner reviewed studies which examined the placebo effect and established that several cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and even pulmonary functions could be influenced by placebos (Meissner). The studies which he reviewed typically stemmed from laboratory tests and clinical trials which had promising results. In relation to the modulation, four experiments he studied investigated the autonomic pathways which involved placebo responses, in which three of them provided evidence of organ-specific effects such as blood pressure, gastric motility and lung function (Meissner). This research obviously as the rest needs more examination before we can call it a day, but Meissner already has a suggestion which includes using children who are exposed to things such as blood pressure but do not have as good of an understanding of it as adults do, thus removing some factors which skew the current research on placebos and the altering effects it can have via mind modulation and the ANS (Meissner).


  • Rossi, Ernest Lawrence. “Mind Modulation of the Autonomic Nervous System.” The Psychobiology of Mind-body Healing: New Concepts of Therapeutic Hypnosis. Revised ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1986. 161-185. Print.
  • Okano, Alexandre Hideki, et al. “Brain stimulation modulates the autonomic nervous system, rating of perceived exertion and performance during maximal exercise.” British journal of sports medicine (2013): bjsports-2012.
  • Karimi, Khalil, et al. “The vagus nerve modulates CD4+ T cell activity.” Brain, behavior, and immunity 24.2 (2010): 316-323.
  • Chien, Li-Wei, Su Li Cheng, and Chi Feng Liu. “The effect of lavender aromatherapy on autonomic nervous system in midlife women with insomnia.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine 2012 (2011).
  • Meissner, Karin. “The placebo effect and the autonomic nervous system: evidence for an intimate relationship.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 366.1572 (2011): 1808-1817.

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