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The science of compassion 2012. Polyvagal theory

Posted on December 7, 2012 at 7:53 PM
Origins of compassion. A phylogenetic Perspective. This was a presentation delivered at the Compassion Conference (Telluride, 2012)

Stephen A. Porges, Phd, is the author of the polyvagal theory, which states that the tenth cranial nerve plays an important role in affiliative motivation. He focuses on core processes in the body on which psychological processes may reside. 

Dr Porges states that compassion is uniquely mammalian and  neuro-physiologically incompatible with judgemental, evaluative and defensive behaviours and feelings that recruit older (reptilian) neural circuits regulating autonomic function. The effectiveness of meditation, listening, chant, posture and breath on fostering mental states and health is due to a common phylogenetic change in the neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system. These practices are all recruiting the newer mammalian circuits. 

Unlike reptiles, mammals have two vagal circuits. The ancient vagus is unmyelinated and regulates gut and sub-diaphragmatic organs. The myelinated vagus is specifically mammalian and regulates supra-diaphragmatic organs (lungs and heart).

Bi-directional interactions among brainstem source nuclei of the myelinated vagus and several cranial nerves that regulate the striated muscles of the face and head result in "face-heart" connection with "portals" that regulate "state". The myelinated vagus down-regulates stress response. This system provides portals of manipulation. These state regulating portals are the voice (self-talk, chants), ear (listening to another), facial muscles (relaxing them), breathing (prolonging exhalation) and posture (dance, open posture) 

Compassion requires turning off our defenses. Our physiological state colours our perception of the world. The same stimuli can trigger different responses depending on our physiological states. The autonomic nervous system is also related to the brain. Our visualisations, thoughts can be transmitted from brain to body, but also the body can promote information upward, changing our cognitive states and our capacity to relate to the world. The vagus nerve essentially reads our body and sends the information to the cortex.

Defense turns off the mammalian "innovations", essentially the ANS and the face-heart connection. Faces become blank or flat when people become scared or challenged or in pain. The neural tone to the heart increases. When the face becomes animated, the vagal activity to the heart is calming. 

Compassion requires turning off biobehavioural defense systems in the "dyad" to enable both "compassionate" individual and the other to be safe, to be proximal and to enable physical contact. We are capable of picking up from facial cues whether someone is genuinely compassionate or acting out of duty. The delivery of service in a medical model requires the person to be genuinely loving and caring for the target person to be receptive to that type of support. 

Polyvagal Theory. Explains the functional relevance of the mammalian modifications of the ANS and emphasizes the adaptive consequences of detecting risk on physiological state, social behaviour, psychological experience and health. We use our newer circuits first and when they don't serve to put us in safer environments, we use older and older circuits. It is not a cognitive or a perceptual response. 

Neuroception is the body's ability to detect risk outside awareness and when it detects risk it shifts us into these different states. We take cues both from the external world and from inside the body and this is interpreted by the nervous system (an unconscious response) and this triggers different physiological states. In a state of safety we can spontaneously engage with others (eye contact, good facial expression, voice has prosody and when we do all this this supports visceral homeostasis and health). When we feel safe we are able to use another person in the dyadic interaction to help regulate our state. 

When our nervous system detects features that are not safe, then it goes into a more mobilised state. Muscle tension increases, heart rate increases, the voice is squeaky - you are now prepared for fight-flight behaviour. If the nervous system identifies the situation as life threatening and there is no possibility of getting away, the system shuts down (immobilisation, death feigning). Society is always pushing people to their limits. We need to down-regulate mobilisation to put people in the safe state and in this state we can be bold, creative and engaged.

The dyad is essential in regulating physiological state. Mother-infant interaction promotes a feeling of safety. This is not solely a human response - this is shared by other mammals. Face to face interaction helps tie the vagal nerve (the tenth)
to facial muscles, the larynx and the heart. When you are safe you can be immobilised without fear. This can only occur following the establishment of "safety" via the social engagement system. Without feeling safe, immobilisation triggers life-threat experiences. 

Bodily feelings influence our awareness of others and either potentiate spontaneous social engagement behaviours and feelings of compassion or defensive reactions and judgemental feelings. Compassion is a manifestation of our biological need to engage and to be with others and a component of our biological quest for safety in the proximity of another. 

Categories: Anxiety, Compassion, Empathy

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