>I recently returned from a very stimulating weekend serving as a panelist for Stephen Porges and Sue Carter’s presentation, “Regulating and Maintaining Connections,” an update on Stephen’s Polyvagal Theory. My thanks to CIIS for putting on this event, and to my friend Mark Ludwig who did a tremendous job of putting on this event.
Mark drew together a very special diverse audience consisting of somatic psychotherapists and students, attachment and child development specialists, people working with autism and other social disabilities, and many others others. The presentation was rich with new data from their ongoing research. These included the integrating neuroendocrine aspect to the Polyvagal theory Sue’s research on oxytocin, and Stephen’s increasingly sophisticated view of the vagus nerve as intrinsic to our “Social Engagement System.”
I thought I’d pick out a few points to summarize and to highlight as they are of importance to body oriented psychotherapy. I apologize in advance to Sue Carter, as I haven’t yet integrated the work she presented on the emerging neuro-hormonal features enough yet to speak intelligently about her contributions. This omission in no way reflects the importance of her contribution to the workshop or theory, only my own lack in grasping it clearly.
This post may seem a bit long, but it’s worth hanging in there as it will change your thinking about embodiment.
That Visceral autonomic processes are intrinsic to relational, social and emotional processes-
This is a big point because much of neuroscience is has been stuck in a 19th century view of the visceral nervous system being purely physiological in nature. This is particularly true in medicine. My ophthalmologist, who I saw just before flying out to the workshop, questioned why I, a psychologist, was going to a conference about “A purely physiological subject?” Her medical training taught her that the autonomic nervous system has nothing to do with the personal.
This point has also been largely ignored by the cutting-edge “new neuroscientists,” whose brain-centric obsession with the new scanning technology has left them completely enamored with locating every human functioning somewhere in the brain. Once again the person— emotion, cognition, spirituality, along with everything else— has once again been excised from the rest of the body and conveniently placed in a “brain in a jar!” What the measurement instrument can resolve has become confused with the whole of the phenomena.
But understanding how the visceral nervous system underpins social and emotional functioning also a big thing for the field of body psychotherapy. Our field has been mostly focused on the muscular system in both theory and intervention: muscular armor, muscular tensions, movement patterns, movements as the access to emotion, and muscular based techniques of intervention. Muscles are the most obvious thing about “the body” and could be reached, touched. Our basis in the “vegetative” nervous system has mostly been holdover from Reich’s very 19th century based view of the visceral nervous system. Time to update and get with the relational and interoceptive program!
Porges refers to “neuroception” as the in-built, unconsciously operating brain circuitry that registers “danger” through a variety of perceptual cues (discernment of others facial expressions, auditory stimuli that cue predator presence, etc.). There is a hierarchy here in that, under worsening survival threat, our biology calls on progressively earlier evolved circuits. Neuroception can overrule the later evolved, mammalian Social Engagement System and gears us up for either the pre-mammalian fight or flight of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) or, in extreme conditions, for the more primitive reptilian based system of immobilization.
Social engagement system (SES)-
To live, love, learn, play, write, be human requires us to be able to regulate our internal state to match external circumstances. We need to calm ourselves enough to sit and take in from another whether we are taking in information, love, nurture, or even their displeasure. We need to be able to gear-up our heart rate and our excitement to match the other’s in pleasure, play, argument, and self-assertion… all within a particular range of excitement short of full-on fight or flight. Creativity requires both excitement and steadiness, patience and passion.
“Afferent feedback from the viscera provides a major mediator of the accessibility of prosocial circuits associated with social engagement behaviors.” In D. Fosha, D. J. Siegel, & M. F. Solomon (Eds.) (2009, in press). The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development, clinical practice. New York: Norton
All of these things require adequate vagal tone especially of the myelinated vagus. That is, they require adequate responsiveness of this system in order to regulate the internal state aspects of heart rate and breathing pace as well as the socially interactive aspects of eye expression and our ability to attune our ear to the human voice. The SES forms the visceral, physiological basis on which these higher-order brain processes rest. Stephen points out that the brainstem center from which the myelinated vagus nerve originates is highly connected with higher brain centers relating to emotion, language and voice as well as systems evaluating safety, danger, differentiating play from other forms of aggression and so on.
“The Social Engagement System is an integrated system with both a somatomotor component regulating the striated muscles of the face and a visceromotor component regulating the heart via a myelinated vagus. The system is capable of dampening activation of the sympathetic nervous system and HPA-axis activity. By calming the viscera and regulating facial muscles, this system enables and promotes positive social interactions in safe contexts.” In D. Fosha, D. J. Siegel, & M. F. Solomon (Eds.) (2009, in press). The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development, clinical practice. New York: Norton
Terms of Embodiment?
rest on our capacity to integrate our visceral nature as an engaged support for such higher order activities.
I use the term integrate rather than the more usual one of “control” intentionally. The notion that our ability to control our animal nature by pure reason (cortex), and thus surmount the animal world (the body) is a still resonating influence left over from 19th century rationalist as well as religious philosophy… and erroneous and incomplete 19th century neuroscience.
What we call “the body,” even in body psychotherapy circles, is not only not different from “mind” but is the physiological basis through which which we register, process and engage in our social-relational field. And this engagement is hugely interactive: our physiology is regulated by interaction with others, our physiology also regulates others physiology, and our physiological state is also intrinsically influential on our “sense of self,” our self-perception of our own person.
This view is so much a part of Gestalt therapy field theory that my Gestalt readers will recognize it instantly. Even so, Gestalt therapy has lacked an appreciation of the neurophysiology that makes it so. Integrating Porges work tells us how this is so, as well as how to work more specifically with the-body-as-instrument-of-the-field.
In this light, Myron Hofer’s 1984 suggestion that “Social interactions may continue to play an important role in the everyday regulation of internal biologic systems throughout life…” was prescient. Stephen Porges might add that our internal biological systems are mutually self regulating and, with LeDoux and others, that they are crucial for higher order functioning.
Once you see the relevance of this orientation, you can begin to understand how disregulation of the Social Engagement System could be involved in many of problems therapists see in practice.
From a clinical perspective it would be the inability to inhibit defense systems in safe environments (e.g., Anxiety Disorders, PTSD, Reactive Attachment Disorder) or the inability to activate defense systems in risk environments (e.g., Williams Syndrome, a genetic disorder with a behavioral repertoire characterized by engaging without detecting or respecting the emotional state of others) that might contribute to the defining features of psychopathology. In D. Fosha, D. J. Siegel, & M. F. Solomon (Eds.) (2009, in press). The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development, clinical practice. New York: Norton
Body oriented psychotherapists, in particular, are often working with people whose life experience has resulted in their neuroception mis-labeling what is safe in the actual present as potentially dangerous (or sometimes vice versa), such as touch and intimacy being an emergency. We also see many whose vagal tone is underdeveloped from early experience- the lack of ability to self-calm and self-soothe, or have become disregulated due to life style, as we see in chronic stress, overwork and burn out.
Stephen emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interactions for engaging the SES and influencing and retraining visceral responses, but there are many ways we can influence vagal tone in others. These include our facial responses, touch, cuing and regulating a clients breathing pace through our own breathing, posture and stance in relation to the other, voice rhythm and prosody, and so on.
In an upcoming post I’ll describe a bit of how we have learned to directly influence vagal tone through the Nervous System Energy Work, as well as present my view of the subjective the vagus nerve is important in for sensing certain visceral emotional qualities as well as our sense of self.