Information Age Education
   Issue Number 110
March, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html. In addition, two free books based on the Newsletters are available at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Newsletter. The most recent one is titled Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

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

Barbara Given
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education
George Mason University


Stephen Porges 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 what’s happening.

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 possible.

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 children.

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 and disappointment.

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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