An Interview with Dr Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory
Dr Porges’ area of interest over the last 10 years has been the evolution of the vagus nerve and its role in facilitating survival as well as social engagement. He proposes (in a theory he terms the Polyvagal Theory) that the vagus nerve has evolved in particular ways in mammals to facilitate social connection. This is partly accomplished through the enervation of facial and vocal structures.
However, trauma has the capacity to activate the more primitive branch where survival overrides the higher functions of social engagement. The regulation of heart rate, respiration and so on occurs at the expense of connecting with others. An interview with Stephen interestingly titled “Don’t Talk to me I’m Scanning for Danger” sums up this argument. It is worth noting that this person is in a catch 22 – unable to engage because of neurological imperatives and thus robbed of opportunities for healing through engagement.
This interview does spend some time on the above more theoretical aspects and Dr Porges is aware of the very different thinking styles of the clinician and the researcher. However, his research is leading to new protocols for the assessment and management of panic disorder, autism and a variety of other presentations. He suggests that there are components of psychotherapy, including the setting that might facilitate the client’s ability to move out of trauma and ‘scanning’ mode and into the realm of emotional exploration and resolution. A quiet, contained room and a calm and engaged therapist are a good start.