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A New Series
This Newsletter is the first of a series on recent research
developments in the culturally important issue of morality. Knowing how
to do something and deciding whether of not to do it are related but
separate issues. For example, a hermit can do whatever is necessary to
stay alive, but people who live together must also consider the effects
of such survival behavior on others. Morality is thus about such social
dualities as right/wrong, good/bad, and fair/unfair. Ethics is about
the specific rules and laws that people should follow.
Morality is a human issue because we're a social species. The series
articles explore the issue of whether morality emerged only when humans
evolved into a social species, or if morality is something that emerged
as mammals discovered the values of cooperative behavior. The
introductory pair of articles focus on the development of
the vagus nerve, which plays a significant role in survival and
social behavior. The two subsequent articles review recent books by
Patricia Churchland and Frans De Wall that argue that moral behavior is
observable in non-human species. The final article presents the
philosophical and theological perspective that moral behavior as we
understand it is basically a human phenomenon.
Morality: Recent Research Developments
The Intriguing Educational Applications of
Polyvagal Theory. Part 1
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education
George Mason University
is a renowned brain researcher who has proposed the intriguing and
educationally significant Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 2011) of how basic
body/brain survival systems emerged and how they relate to human social
and learned behavior. The theory's title comes from poly: many and
vagal: vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the human body. The
vagus nerve begins in the brain stem and connects to and helps to
regulate all body organs. Sympathetic vagus fight/flight/freeze actions
occur during imminent danger or opportunity challenges. Parasympathetic
actions slow down body functions towards rest and recuperation. Think
metaphorically: sympathetic: a gas pedal; parasympathetic: a brake.
Porges’ theory is grounded in how we emerged through three distinct
evolutionary stages: cold-blooded reptilian, vertebrate, and
warm-blooded mammal. Neural strands of the system that collectively
represent the three stages make up the vagus nerve, and each stage now
plays a key role in how contemporary humans behave. In many respects,
this unconscious polyvagal system is more a matter of how our body
controls our brain than the reverse.
The polyvagal theory explains three educationally significant issues:
(1) how assertive freeze, fight or flight physical actions can escape
or defeat prey, (2) how residue from freeze, fight or flight reactions
can interfere with social engagement, and (3) how the mammalian branch
of the vagus nerve in concert with other cranial nerves help
individuals to heal from trauma and engage in social interactions.
Let’s begin by explaining how the evolutionary stages (reptilian,
vertebrate, and mammalian) apply to human behavior, and how specific
non-conscious and conscious behaviors impact learning. A follow-up
article will then explore educational applications.
Stage One (Reptilian)
The reptilian branch of the vagus nerve produces an autonomic
freeze reaction that slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure.
Extreme fear immobilizes animals so they can avoid being seen and thus
harmed. A mouse will slow its physiological functioning when caught in
the jaws of a cat that simply holds it without biting down. The
frightened mouse appears dead and may even die if left in that immobile
state. If released, the mouse will remain motionless until its internal
organs once again function normally and oxygen fuels the brain, at
which time the mouse will rapidly scurry away. An immobilized “deer in
the headlights” is another freeze example.
Fear may cause humans to faint or the mind can numb and separate
emotion and attention from the experience that produces amnesia of
parts of the event (Scaer, 2001). When we’re cornered or held down by a
larger person (such as when beaten or raped), the freeze mode tends to
block some of the event’s anguish and pain. Rapists often tell their
victims that something terrible will happen to them or a loved one if
they report the abuse, or else that they’ll claim the victim had asked
for the rape by acting “sexy.” Consequently, the victim is afraid to
tell (freeze), feels guilty, and may even believe the rape was her
fault, because she could not fight back or escape.
Other traumatic events such as fighting in a war may have the same
impact. When soldiers see their friends blown up, the freeze reaction
unconsciously sets in and the viewer becomes immobilized. Guilt at not
rushing to their friends’ defense often plagues survivors even though
they had no conscious control over their reactions. Survivors generally
need help to understand and overcome the residue of freeze reactions.
Stage Two (Vertebrate)
Both the reptilian and vertebrate axons of the vagus nerve
are unmyelinated, which means that no fatty “insulation” surrounds the
axons. (The main purpose of a myelin sheath is to increase the speed at
which impulses propagate along the axon.) Stage two shifts from a
reptilian freezing mode into mobilizing fight or flight responses to
dangerous or potentially dangerous challenges. Specific hormones can
cause responses that fight to the death or that seek to escape danger.
If unable to do either, reptilian freeze responses immobilize the
organism to reduce pain and agony (Scaer, 2001).
Unconscious environmental stimulation can instantly trigger an
automatic self-preservation fight or flight response. It’s a kill or be
killed, a flee or be eaten or beaten response. Awareness may shortly
set in and we may wonder why we’re running or fighting so ferociously.
LeDoux (1996) describes how flight automatically occurs when a
rattlesnake is about to strike—we run away before we consciously know
Porges explains that a high level of sensitivity results as
individuals’ peripheral non-brain circuits continually process and
evaluate the risk of incoming challenges. This neuroception process
occurs in unmyelinated nerves without conscious awareness or perception
of the sensory world. The peripheral nervous system detects danger
before we are consciously aware of the nature of the challenge.
In school, mild forms of stage two behaviors occur when students
“fight” with back talk or oppositional behavior in an environment they
consider unsafe. “Flight” behaviors occur when students daydream,
engage in mental fantasies, withdraw, routinely come to class late or
otherwise seek to avoid being there. They may avoid others with whom
they feel emotionally or socially unsafe or uncomfortable. When
inactions are thus painful, students automatically avoid those who
evoke such internal feelings.
Stage Three (Mammalian)
During the polyvagal mammalian stage the vagus nerve evolved
beyond its 10th cranial nerve beginnings (stages 1 and 2) and added
innervations from cranial nerves 5, 7, 9, and 11. These affect the
throat area, add further heart and other bodily regulations, and
introduce the autonomic functions of social engagement.
To manage this functional shift, the polyvagal theory emphasizes that
sensory information travels from the body to the brain through
unmyelinated neurons (stages one and two), effecting how we respond to
the world, but also from the brain to the body through the myelinated
elements of the vagus nerve (mammalian stage three).
“This intuitive bidirectional and interactive notion of how our nervous
system regulates our internal organs in a complex social environment is
neglected or minimized . . .” (Porges, 2011, p. 2). “We get the
signals, but we do not respect them. Denying our bodily reactions
has much to [do] with our culture” (p. 12).
The Polyvagal Theory thus suggests that our human interactions with
others influences our nervous system. Mammalian humans are a social
species and so need others in order to survive. Reciprocal behavioral
interactions regulate each other’s physiological state. Basically, we
create relationships to feel safe and to maintain our health by
facilitating the regulation of our physiology. Our nervous system
basically craves reciprocal interaction to enable a state regulation to
feel safe. Behavioral problems occur when this is lacking.
The mammalian stage three vagus nerve can help us heal. Consciously
engaging neural pathways from the human brain to the body can
effectively influence visceral reactions of fight or flight. Self-talk
can thus calm the mind so it can assess a situation and determine if
danger is or isn’t present. Learning in an emotionally and socially
safe school setting can calm the automatic stages one and two of the
vagus nerve. Our body/brain can thus relax and make social engagement
This new way of thinking is perhaps the most exciting insight that
Porges shares. Even though self-talk has been valued for many years
(Luria, 1961), understanding why self-talk works is a cognitive
breakthrough: 1. The mammalian strand of the vagus nerve and its
branches are myelinated (“insulated”), which is unique to mammals. 2.
Because the mammalian strands link to the muscles of the face and head
as well as to internal organs, we understand that smiles suggest
happiness, that voice rhythm, intonation, volume, etc., reflect types
of communication, and that these are associated with affective
experiences, emotional expressions, facial gestures, vocal
communication, and contingent social behavior (Porges, 2009, p. 890).
However, if mind and body fail to recognize the environment as safe,
they will remain in flight-fight readiness; social engagement will
continue to be guarded, oppositional behaviors or withdrawal will be
present, and the formation of relationships will only be superficial if
they are formed at all (Porges, 2009, pp. 889-890; Porges, 2004).
Porges (in Eichhorn, 2012) states that unless we can turn off our
evolutionarily programmed defense systems, we give up access to social
engagement components: benevolence, care, compassion, and shared
experiences, because being mobilized for defensive states results in
‘biological rudeness’ and the whole aspect of what is gained by being
interactive with another can’t play out because we are in survival
mode. Even in the absence of danger, fear, or trauma, it is extremely
difficult to shut off the residue from immobilization trauma or the
mobilization of fight/flight influence on the mind and body such as
seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of victimized adults and
From his study of HIV patients and autistic children, Porges (2011)
found that caregivers often feel unloved and frequently get angry,
because the patient fails to respond with appropriate facial
expressions, eye gaze, and vocal intonation. The caregivers thus feel
rejected, disengaged, and emotionally disconnected. Their physiological
responses functionally betray them and they feel insulted.
This insight may transfer to relationships between students and
teachers, especially with students who look away rather than make eye
contact or who fail to respond in meaningful ways that let teachers
know they are engaged. Teachers may try to motivate such students
without realizing that the students may be suffering from
freeze/fight/flight residue that forces them to keep up their guard.
Teachers may not like such students, and so get angry or aggressive,
and even ridicule and blame them for not caring about learning.
Teachers may feel guilty and frustrated without realizing that neither
the students’ behaviors nor theirs were willful but were the stages 1
and 2 aftermath of the autonomic nervous system attempting to protect
the student from further harm, and the teacher from feeling rejection
The next article will focus on appropriate teacher behaviors related to Porges’s Polyvagal Theory.
References and Resources
Eichhorn, N. (2012). Safety: The preamble for social engagement: An interview with Stephen W. Porges. Somatic Psychotherapy Today, Spring 2012 1(4). See: http://www.usabp.org; http://www.eabp.org; and http://www.issuu.com/Somatic.
LeDoux, J. (1996). Emotional Brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Luria, A.R. (1961). The role of speech in the regulation of normal and abnormal behavior. Oxford, New York: Pergamon.
Porges, S.W. (2004). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three.
Porges, S.W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, vol. 76 Suppl 2 S86-S90.
Porges, S.W. (2011). “Somatic perspectives” series: Interview with Serge Prengel. USABP and EABP. See http://www.SomaticPerspectives.com.
Porges, S.W. & Buczynski, R. (2012). The Polyvagal Theory for treating trauma: A teleseminar session with Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. and Ruth Buczynski, Ph.D. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. See http://www.stephenporges.com/images/NICABM April 2012.pdf.
Scaer, R.C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease. New York: Haworth Medical.
Barbara K. Given
Barbara K. Given, Ph.D., initiated the Special Education Teacher
Preparation Program and served as Special Education Program Coordinator
at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, VA. She is a former
Director of the Center for Honoring Individual Learning Diversity, an
International Learning Styles Network Center. She received two
prestigious research awards. In addition to publishing many articles,
she is the author of Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems
(ASCD, 2002), and Learning Styles: A Guide for Teachers and Parents
(Learning Forum Publications, 2000). In her retirement, Given is a GMU
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education and Faculty Affiliate
at Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.
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