Look, Listen & Vocalize the Polyvagal Way
by Moira Theede
“The Polyvagal Theory is an expansive conceptualization of how our nervous system serves as a platform for many of our complex behaviours, thoughts, emotions, intentions, and physical health” (2). Dr. Stephen W. Porges, a neurophysiologist, expanded our understanding of the human autonomic nervous system in 1994. Five Polyvagal Theory fundamentals—feeling safe, feeling connected, neuroception, the social engagement system, and neural expectancy—influence our autonomic nervous system. Being Polyvagal-informed is knowing, “How we look, listen, and vocalize conveys information to others about whether we are safe to approach” (2). The relevance of the Polyvagal Theory at this time in history is very significant. It provides the science to understand how the mind/body or body/mind continually influence physiological and mental states. Connectedness is a biological imperative and Dr. S. W. Porges’ work demonstrates the neurophysiological potential each of us have for befriending and welcoming each other.
Feeling Safe is about connectedness, not defense. The Polyvagal Theory has deepened our understanding of the dynamics between our nervous system, our facial expressions, and bodily sensations (1). Connectedness as a biological imperative conveys that, “the fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and co-operation” (Dobzhansky in Porges, 2015). Feeling safe influences how I/we frame interdependence from the personal to the societal level.
Neuroception is an automatic process that comes before perception and does not require awareness. It “evaluates cues of safety, danger, and life threat.” Cues of safety that support physical, mental, and emotional safety are precursors in the development of trusting social relationships and are “what our nervous system craves . . . the active presentation of features of safety” (2) conveyed through our social engagement system (see below).
The Social Engagement System is a set of neural circuits (via cranial nerves 5, 7, 9, 10, and 11) that stimulate our engagement with other human beings and our environment. Face-to-face communication (facial expressions) with kind eye connection (eye movements) and prosodic voice tones (voice box) as we tilt and turn our head (gestures) convey safety toward others. Prosodic voice tones enhance our ability to hear human voices and understand words spoken to us. For example, “Mothers or caregivers need to be available to reliably provide the infant with opportunities of high-quality reciprocal interactions. These interactions serve as neural exercises as the mother provides social cues of safety that serve to regulate the infant’s physiology” (Porges, 2015).
Social engagement behaviours are very important for brain development. In a newspaper article titled “The Great Disconnect” (Globe and Mail, February 17, 2018), Dr. Norman Doidge (author of The Brain That Changes Itself, 2007) dialogues with Jim Balsillie about how technology is influencing brain plasticity. “Media gurus in our time are merely mouthfuls of praise for what high tech will do for you – and silent on what they will take away.” Dr. Doidge fears, “We are slipping into a new kind of split-attentional-neglect” because increasingly parents, although physically present, are psychologically online. When a baby smiles, a healthy adult can’t not smile back. You need thousands of those exchanges to develop that emotion-reading right hemisphere, and these exchanges, when they happen, occur very fast. If you are not paying close attention, you miss the baby’s smile, or grimace, and your face won’t mirror the right emotion back. If we are spending ten hours a day looking at screens, then we might also ask ourselves, “What is the quality of my relationships?” (1).
Our social engagement system is linked to our human (mammalian) autonomic nervous system. Head turning, eye gaze, speaking in prosodic voice tones, facial expressions that convey delight, and gestures that welcome another are what humans need in order to create safe connections, friendships, and social bonding. “Co-regulation involves the mutual regulation of physiological states between individuals” (2). This co-regulation (bonding/friendship) supports the foundation for establishing self-regulation (ventral vagal state) that supports growth and health. Polyvagal theory also provides the foundational science underlying human/animal bonds that are beneficial for co-regulation and calming autonomic states (ie. pets, service dogs, equine-assisted therapy).
Neural Expectancy is an innate human predisposition. We have anticipatory brains and our nervous system anticipates a reciprocal response when we initiate social engagement and want to talk with others. Neural expectancy promotes social interactions, bonding, and trust. Divided attention and distraction from screens (cell phones) can compromise the interpersonal communication process and our ability to convey empathy. The Polyvagal term “biological rudeness” describes an “immediate and massive shift in the autonomic nervous system” (3). Biological rudeness easily triggers states of defense.
Slowing down, looking, listening, and vocalizing in ways with a focus on helping others feel safe is fundamental. Felt smiles for connection and expressing authentic interest and encouragement can be a simple “Good morning” greeting or “Have a great day” blessing. Imagine the ripples we create when social engagement, reciprocity, trust, curiosity, and interest create an infinity loop impacting our mental and physical health. Developing Polyvagal-informed awareness to communicate messages conveying Acknowledgement and Attention (you are seen, listened to, and heard), Acceptance (you are important to me), Appreciation, Affirmation, and Gratitude (your efforts are noticed and strengths recognized), and Affection (you are loved and cared for), creates “Presence in relationships.” Every engaged exchange sends cues of safety, helping to build a Polyvagal-friendly world. We take time for what we treasure.
(1) Doidge, N. & Balsillie, J., (2018) “The Great Disconnect” Globe and Mail, February 17.
(2) Porges, S. W., (2015) Making the World Safe for Our Children: Down-regulating Defence and Up-regulating Social Engagement to “Optimise” the Human Experience. Children Australia, Vol. 40 No. 2 p. 1-9.
(3) Porges, S. W., (2017) The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe, W.W.Norton, New York, NY.
Moira Theede, BScN, MSc, has enthusiastically researched the Polyvagal Theory and brain plasticity for the past ten years. She presents Polyvagal Workshops to provide attendees with a user-friendly base to understand Dr. Stephen Porges’ new understanding of the autonomic nervous system. She has contributed a chapter in the recently published book, Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory (Porges & Dana, 2018). To contact Moira, email firstname.lastname@example.org.