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Front Neurosci. 2018 Jul 10;12:458. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00458. eCollection 2018.

Vagal Tank Theory: The Three Rs of Cardiac Vagal Control Functioning - Resting, Reactivity, and Recovery.

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German Sport University Cologne, Cologne, Germany.
EA 4260 Normandie Université, Caen, France.
Southampton Solent University, Southampton, United Kingdom.
Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, United Kingdom.
University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Luxembourg.


The aim of this paper is to set the stage for the vagal tank theory, showcasing a functional resource account for self-regulation. The vagal tank theory, building on neurophysiological, cognitive and social psychology approaches, will introduce a physiological indicator for self-regulation that has mainly been ignored from cognitive and social psychology, cardiac vagal control (also referred to as cardiac vagal activity). Cardiac vagal control reflects the contribution of the vagus nerve, the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, to cardiac regulation. We propose cardiac vagal control to be an indicator of how efficiently self-regulatory resources are mobilized and used. Three systematic levels of cardiac vagal control analysis are suggested: resting, reactivity, and recovery. Based on this physiological indicator we derive the metaphor of the vagal tank, which can get depleted and replenished. Overall, the vagal tank theory will enable to integrate previous findings from different disciplines and to stimulate new research questions, predictions, and designs regarding self-regulation.


HF; RMSSD; RSA; executive functions; heart rate variability; parasympathetic activity; self-control; vagal tone

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