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Vagal tone, development, and Gray's motivational theory: Toward an integrated model of autonomic nervous system functioning in psychopathology

    • Published online: 16 May 2001

In the last decade, cardiac vagal tone has emerged as a psychophysiological marker of many aspects of behavioral functioning in both children and adults. Research efforts during this time have produced an extensive list of vagal tone correlates that includes temperamental variables as well as both anxious/internalizing and disruptive/externalizing behaviors. This potentially confusing state of affairs is compounded by developmental shifts in vagal tone–behavior relations that to date have not been elucidated. In this paper, the vagal tone literature is reviewed, and discrepancies, including the lack of specificity of vagal tone as a psychophysiological marker, are clarified. Such clarification requires that we (a) view vagal tone–behavior relations in developmental context, (b) juxtapose vagal tone–behavior relations in typical and atypical samples, and (c) consider the parasympathetic underpinnings of vagal tone as but one component in a broader model of autonomic nervous system functioning. Such a model is provided by combining Gray's motivational theory with Porges's polyvagal theory. Together these models account for behavioral and emotional differences in a diverse range of psychological disorders that are not differentiated by either model alone. Moreover, use of the integrated model offers a theory-driven approach to the study of autonomic nervous system–behavior relations.

Corresponding author
Theodore P. Beauchaine, Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Box 351525, Seattle, WA 98195–1525; E-mail:
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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
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