by Joe Loizzo
Recently I had the rare opportunity to interview one of the rising stars of the new neuroscience, Dr. Stephen Porges, the lone pioneer of the latest research on the unique role of the autonomic nervous system in human life. Many of you have heard me repeatedly try to convey the revolutionary impact of his work on the main neural governor of our body states, moods, mind states, and responses. So you can imagine how thrilled I was that he agreed to speak at our upcoming Annual Benefit, and to spend an hour of his time with me sharing his journey of discovery and reflecting on his work’s relevance to science, psychotherapy, contemplation, and contemporary life.
What I learned in that interview came as no surprise: Dr. Porges is the real deal, a rigorous researcher whose work is transforming our view of human physiology and health and will impact science for decades if not centuries to come. The surprise was to find that Stephen also happens to be a vital, creative child of the 1960’s—a humanist at heart who followed his passion for music deep into the evolutionary sources and innermost mysteries of human life: the healing, connective power of fearless presence, awe, and love. I’d like to share with you a few excerpts from our interview, and hope that they will whet your appetite to hear more from this inspiring pioneer at our 9th Annual Benefit on June 8th!
Joe: Welcome Stephen, could you tell us about the journey that led you to your groundbreaking research and Polyvagal theory?
Stephen: As a teenager, I was always interested in what was going on inside the person, not so much what they were saying, but what was going on inside them. I was very interested in things like hypnosis and to wanted to learn what was going on inside us when we weren’t so defensive. I was also a musician. I was a clarinetist, and that factored into what interested me. As a clarinetist, I was breathing. I was controlling the muscles of the face. I was literally doing pranayama yoga. I had no idea of that at the time, but I knew that as I practiced, it enabled me to think, enabled me to develop ideas and to control the state I was in. I enjoyed it.
So I got very interested in studying internal physiological states. I’m still interested in it, but back in the middle 1960’s psychology was focused mainly on behavior modification, based on the mechanistic model of learning as stimulus and response. I started to conceptualize the internal state of individuals as a variable that stands between stimulus and response, the intervening variable that serves as the organism’s internal buffer between sensory input and behavioral output. You ask if I was the lone pioneer in that research. I was alone because I was conceptualizing behavior outside the model of stimulus and response. It’s not that others didn’t study the brainstem or autonomic pathways. But no one else was giving much thought to how they were related to behavior. I viewed behavior and autonomic state as linked in an integrated system. I also viewed mental processes as providing an input to that system. Finally, I looked at that autonomic system in light of the way it changed in the course of our evolution, to help explain the wide range of human experience and behavior.
That brought me into the world of the autonomic nervous system, especially the cranial nerve called the vagus. When I started to bring the vagus into my research, I realized that no one else had researched it. We were taught that the vagus was just a nerve, but when you dissect it and look at its changes over the history of evolution, you find out that the vagus is really a conduit that links the body’s organs to the brain. Inside that conduit are two sets of motor fibers: one travels through quick, insulated fibers to the heart’s pacemaker, is influenced by conscious breathing, and comes from an area of the brainstem linked with the muscles of the face, larynx and inner ear, which is protective and calming; and the other, slower, uninsulated one more linked to regulation of the organs below the diaphragm. Also inside, the silent majority of the fibers in the vagus are sensory and convey signals to the brain from the organs of the body. The quicker, insulated (or “myelinated”) motor branch of the vagus evolved when we mammals diverged from our reptile ancestors.
An understanding of how evolution modified the brainstem, which integrates sensory information from the body with input from higher brain structures to regulate autonomic state, mind and behavior, became an important part of the Polyvagal theory. Not only does our human neuroanatomy include structures that emerged at different eras in evolution, but the function of these structures are hierarchically organized in how they react to the world. This hierarchy, by shifting autonomic states, becomes the intervening variable or internal response system that influences our behaviors and mental processes.
Joe: That’s amazing Stephen, so how would you describe your new Polyvagal theory of the autonomic nervous system in the simplest terms?
Stephen: In “safe” contexts, when our mammalian vagal circuits are active, the function of our nervous system is optimized to support processes related to health, growth, and restoration as well as connectedness and intimacy. But when we no longer feel safe, the newer circuits go off-line, and we are more prone to get defensive and disconnected. We fall prey to sympathetic nervous system stress—the fight or flight reflex—which shuts down much of our higher social brain and many of its health benefits. In more threatening situations, when even sympathetic fight or flight doesn’t get us out of danger, our bodies may reflexively dissociate and disappear, using the older uninsulated vagal circuit that controls the faint or freeze reflex, effectively shutting down our body and higher social brain.
What is behind evolution’s organizing the autonomic nervous system in this complex way? Polyvagal theory basically provides us with the neurophysiology to understand that connectedness with other mammals, other humans, and even our pet dogs and cats, is really, in a very pragmatic way, our purpose in life.
Can we sense a person’s physiology in their face or in their voice? Yes, because the newer vagal circuit, influenced by breath, is linked to a brainstem area that controls facial muscles involved in emotional expression, middle ear muscles involved in extracting the emotional content in human voice, and muscles of the larynx and pharynx that enable us to speak with intonation. All these parts of the newer vagal system convey our physiological state, both through facial expressions and through tone of voice.
Since these new circuits lie in the front-facing—ventral—part of the brainstem, collectively they are called the ventral vagal complex. As we see in any social setting, the capacity to show emotion in our face and voice are part of an adaptive set of structures to convey our internal physiological state to each other. You can think of this as an evolutionary adaptation we needed to survive as mammals. Voice, intonation, and facial expressivity enable mammals of the same species to communicate and feel safe with each other.
We’re so indoctrinated to see the individual as the unit of study, the unit of function, but the Polyvagal theory says is that through evolution, mammals couldn’t survive as isolates. They needed interaction with others of their species. Our purpose is to be connected, because without being connected, our minds and bodies wither and waste away.
Another part of the theory is very relevant to the world we’re in now, a world where we live in which safety is unpredictable. We think of safety as the absence of threat. But our nervous system doesn’t buy that. Our nervous system tells us that absence of threat is insufficient. “It’s great to remove threat, but I still will be hypervigilant and scared, because a threat could come along anytime.”
Our bodies need cues of safety. What are the cues of safety? Cues of safety come from social engagement. They come from the friendly face, they come from the soothing voice, they come from gracious gestures, they come from our ability to feel safe in proximity with one another. Without these cues, our bodies fall back into a hypervigilant state. If we’re in a hypervigilant physiologic state, we will react to the world as if it’s dangerous, whether it is or not. If we’re in a state of social safety and connection, we’re in another physiological mindset, and we’ll be welcoming even in the face of challenge.
These principles fit with contemplative practices. Insofar as we can give ourselves and others social safety cues, we can become more attuned to our internal state, “more authentic.” When we feel more authentic, we can become more safely vulnerable and connect with others. When we understand this, we understand why contemplative practices can be a key part of the healing process. In terms of autonomic system problems that may follow trauma, such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, we have to reconceptualize the causal mechanisms and treatments. Our autonomic nervous system not only has neural pathways going from brainstem structures to the organs, but also involves sensory pathways from the organs to the brain and higher brain structures going to the area of the brainstem that regulates those nerves. The inclusion of top‑down regulation in this model is almost like saying to our minds and bodies, “OK, now reorganize!” That’s part of how East beats West, when contemplative traditions teach us how to optimize health.
Joe: Of course, you know the link to contemplative skills and mindful healing is what fascinates me and our community. Can you say more about how Polyvagal theory helps explain how contemplation works?
Stephen: In the early 90’s, I went to India to study yogis and learned some interesting things from them. Many of their practices are designed to trigger the older vagal shutdown response that drives the faint or freeze reflex.
The idea is that through training, you can begin going into these immobilizing states normally linked with faint and freeze, but more aware and less frightened. In my own model, the older evolutionary part of the vagus —with is circuits in the back-facing dorsal side of the brainstem—is a very powerful system of calming that enables the deepest forms of connectedness and intimacy. But it can only be consciously recruited for social life when our bodies are in safe states. That’s where the newer vagus literally is your shield. It’s the protector that says, “It’s OK now to explore this and go there.”
Yogis who hold their breath, like deep-sea divers, are in a sense saying, “If I can master this biological shutdown reflex by controlling my breath, I can now visit these powerful physiological states.” When we visit these states without fear, it’s a type of “self‑intimacy,” the ability to go deep inside oneself and feel secure that it’s not going to be life‑threatening.
If we think of religion as a human practice of group connectedness, we see why even the structures that were used for religious worship enabled people to experience their body without being hypervigilant. In massive churches, they have large organs that play very low sounds. The extremely low notes from these organs produce in the listener a natural response that dips us into the older vagal state. When this happens in an internal state of safety and connection, it evokes a sense not of fear but of awe.
Invoking this state of awe offers one type of self-intimacy, of going into that deep part of our body in safety and awareness. These practices are exercises that simultaneously stimulate the newer part of the vagus, based in the ventral vagal complex, which function to promote social engagement behaviors. If we survey various religions, the Sufis use dance, the Buddhists chant, and the Muslims and Jews use posture and vocal prayers. These are all vagal triggers that promote self-intimacy, but they are framed in contexts that promote social engagement, it’s not only bodies moving, it’s bodies moving in a social context. This socially engaged movement helps stimulate both parts of the vagal system, evoking a deep state of connection of the kind that fosters not just awe but also empathy and love.
Polyvagal theory can help us see the benefits of many of these contemplative exercises. We see that the processes described in Polyvagal Theory enable individuals not only to connect, but to become healthier and to enhance their quest for their own authentic spiritual experience. In this way, the theory may ultimately allow a continuity of understanding in which spirituality, physiology, psychology, and social behavior would all be seen as one.
I hope these brief excerpts help you see why we’re so very excited to honor Dr. Porges and his breakthrough contribution to understanding contemplative science and practice at our upcoming benefit.
If you’d like to read more on how his work applies to yoga, look at his latest scholarly article “Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory” in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. Stephen Porges’ most recent book on his groundbreaking theory is The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe *
My recent opinion piece, “Can Embodied Contemplative Practices Accelerate Resilience Training and Trauma Recovery,” also in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, addresses how his theory helps explain why embodied contemplative practice could most effectively build resilience and heal trauma.
See you at our 9th Annual Benefit on June 8th!
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