The Polyvagal Theory

This important research is best credited to Stephen Porges. It is so important that many others have developed his material and integrated his conclusions into research and training. This includes people like Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel and Peter Afford.

Why is Porges’ work so important? The ‘flight/fight‘ response has been around for eons. Much was known about how it worked; how it was triggered and led us to recovery (if all went well). What Porges identified, however, was that the simple model of autonomic nervous system (ANS) overlooked some important features. The ANS plainly played a central role in initiating and sustaining the flight/fight response. It seemed as though a ‘pumping’ action kept us in balance (I am a Cornishman, by the way, and I think of Newcomen engines at this point – used to keep our mines free of water in-flows). The ANS, with its sympathetic and para-sympathetic systems, stimulated us and then calmed us down. It got us motived to act in emergencies, and ensured we recovered afterwards.

My understanding is that Porges identifed that the Vagus nerve, a key nerve in the operation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), was more than a single conduit. This long nerve running the length of our upper body does not simply comprise of one or two routes. It comprised several (hence, ‘Polyvagal’ theory!) and, more to the point, he concluded that its ‘parts’ emerged at different times in our evolution.

In particular, there is a ‘reptilian’ element in our lower vagus that promotes immobilisation. This is fine for reptiles, they are not warm-blooded in the way mammals are. Reptiles can stay still for long periods and suddenly spring into action to defend themselves or to attack others.

Humans cannot afford to use that strategy so easily, and for so long. Over time, mammals developed an upper part of their Vagus nerve to compensation for that tendency to be immobilised for extended periods. In time, evolution created a system whereby mammals can be ‘immobilised without fear‘ and without risking fatally low rates in the ingestion of oxygen.

That state of affairs – being immobilised without fear – rather assumes that an infant can adopt that strategy in a safe place. For this to happen, an infant needs a caretaker who can be trusted (we are very vulnerable and at risk when immobilised).

The later evolution of the Vagus nerve played a large part in helping mammals, later human beings, to detect situations in which they were safe.

This later evolution of the Vagus nerve helped to shape our ‘social engagement system‘ – finding out who we will do business with. Through this system, infants learn who could be trusted, and how much they can be trusted. Infants learn very quickly whether to trust or mistrust a carer. However, one sad outcome of this development is that a ‘decision’ to trust, or not, is taken very early on in the infant’s life. The evidence suggests that these ‘decisions’ are made in our first year or two. The available evidence suggests that it is not easy for growing children to revisit that decision and make changes to it.

BUT IT IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE, indeed, it seems to be becoming increasing feasible. It’s just that those decisions cast a long shadow and we have to cast our attention back many years.

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Attachment theory