Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation (tVNS) Enhances Divergent Thinking
Highlights of Research
• A clinical study investigated transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS).
• Results indicate tVNS stimulates afferent fibers of the vagus nerve;
• and, that tVNS enhances creativity performance in divergent thinking.
Divergent thinking is a thought process or methodology that is used to generate creative ideas by exploring a number of possible solutions to a problem. This research is significant as creativity is a key cognitive skill and being able to enhance creative ability will be of great value. In this clinical study, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), which is a new technique to deliver non-invasive brain stimulation via afferent fibers of the vagus nerve, was provided to eighty healthy volunteers who were then assessed for creative performance.
Results from this research found that active transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, tVNS, compared to sham (inactive) tVNS, enhanced divergent thinking. This research suggests an interesting link between the Vagus Nerve and cognitive behavioral performance, via tVNS, where the vagus nerve is causally involved in creative performance. It is also thought that tVNS increases gamma-aminobutyric acid GABA levels, which are involved in divergent thinking.
tVNS activates the auricular branch of the vagus (or vagal) nerve which innervates the skin of the outer human ear leading to stimulation of nerve fibers in this area. This method causes the propagation of signals from the vagus nerve to travel towards the brain stem and from there to intracranial subcortical and cortical structures.
Along with this research, other scientific evidence has now demonstrated that tVNS activates the vagus nerve. Another clinical study showed a tVNS device increased activation in the locus coeruleus and nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS), indicating tVNS is able to reliably stimulate vagal afferents to the brainstem.
Colzato, L. S., Ritter, S. M., & Steenbergen, L. (2018). Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) enhances divergent thinking. Neuropsychologia, 111, 72-76.