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: This article
explores an important part of the molecular and systems organizations
that our brain uses to enhance our body/brain's survival. About a dozen
of the articles that will appear later in this IAE Newsletter
series will provide examples of activities and programs that activate
the feelings of satisfaction and joy that learning enhances.
Polyvagal Theory Helps to Explain the Joy in Learning
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education
George Mason University
The vagus nerve is the
longest cranial nerve in the human body. It begins in the brain stem,
and its connections with all body organs helps to regulate them. In his
educationally significant article, Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges
(April, 2009) suggests that in mammalian species, the vagus nerve
evolved through three distinct stages that support essential behaviors,
including those that enhance the levels of satisfaction and joy we feel
Stage One (Immobilization as Defense)
The most ancient branch of the vagus nerve produces a reaction
that conserves metabolic resources by slowing heart rate and lowering
blood pressure, often to the point of unconsciousness. 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, at which point the mouse will rapidly
Fear may similarly cause humans to faint, or the mind to go 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), this
immobilization mode tends to block some of the event’s anguish and
pain. Traumatic events such as fighting in a war may have a similar
impact. When soldiers see their friends blown up, the freeze reaction
unconsciously sets in and the viewer becomes immobilized and often
psychologically dissociated. Guilt at not rushing to their friends’
defense often plagues survivors even though they had no conscious
control over their reactions. Survivors of fearful situations generally
need help to understand and overcome the residue of immobilization
Stage Two (Mobilization as Defense)
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 our nervous
system continually processes and evaluates the risk of incoming
challenges. This process does not require conscious awareness and may
detect danger before we are consciously aware of the nature of the
challenge (Porges, May, 2004).
In school, mild forms of stage two behaviors occur when students
“fight” with back talk or oppositional behavior in an environment they
consider unsafe. They may avoid others with whom they feel emotionally
or socially uncomfortable.
Stage Three (Social Engagement)
In mammals, a unique branch of the vagus nerve evolved to link the
heart's neural regulation to the regulation of facial and head muscles.
In order for mammals to manage this functional shift, the Polyvagal
Theory emphasizes that sensory information from both the environment
and our visceral organs travels from our body to our brain, affecting
how we respond to the environment.
In contrast to the unmyelinated axon extensions of Stages 1 and 2 that
travel from the body to the brain, Stage 3 information also travels
from our body to our brain through mylenated (insulated) axons of the
vagus nerve. Via cognition, positive or negative self talk, and
interactions with others, this system influences our nervous system and
produces feelings of either safety or risk. The Poyvagal Theory
suggests that positive reciprocal human interactions regulate one
another's physiological states and help us to feel safe, maintain our
health, and survive by facilitating the regulation of our physiology.
The uniquely mammalian stage three vagus nerve can help us to heal.
Consciously engaging neural pathways from the human brain to the body
can effectively dampen the visceral reactions of fight or flight.
Self-talk can calm our mind so it can assess a situation to determine
if danger exists. Learning in an emotionally and socially safe school
setting can thus calm our nervous system with components in the body
and brain that relax and make social engagement possible.
The Polyvagal Theory emphasizes a hierarchical relation among the three
evolutionary stages. The newer circuits of Stage 3 (social engagement)
inhibit the older Stage 2 (mobilization) and Stage 1 (immobilization)
defensive behaviors. What's interesting and educationally relevant is
that Stage 2 defensive mobilization strategies may actually keep us
from reflexively using Stage 1 immobilization as a defense as it
behaviorally shuts down, dissociates, and possibly causes fainting.
This new way of thinking is perhaps Porges's most exciting insight.
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 uniquely
myelinated; and (2) the Stage 3 mammalian strands link to the muscles
of the face and head as well as to internal organs, so we have come to
understand that smiles suggest happiness, and that voice rhythm,
intonation, volume, etc., reflect types of emotional communication and
contingent social behavior (Porges, April, 2009).
However, if mind and body fail to recognize the environment as safe,
the systems will remain in Stage 2 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, May, 2004;
Porges (in Eichhorn, 2012) states that unless we can turn off our
evolutionarily programmed defense systems, we give up positive access
to such social engagement components as benevolence, care, compassion,
and shared experiences. This happens because we are stuck in a survival
mode, mobilized for defensive states that result in “biological
rudeness.” The whole aspect of what is gained by being interactive with
another person has disappeared. 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 behaviors
that influence our 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, angered, and insulted because
the patient fails to respond with appropriate facial expressions and
This insight may transfer to relationships between students and
teachers, especially when students look away rather than make eye
contact or otherwise let teachers know they are engaged. Teachers may
try to motivate such students without realizing that they may be
suffering from freeze/fight/flight residue that forces them to keep up
their guard. Teachers may not like such students, may become angry or
aggressive, and may 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
rather were attempts by our nervous system to protect the student from
further harm, and the teacher from feeling rejection and disappointment.
When our Stage 2 mobilized and Stage 1 immobilized vagus circuits are
inhibited by our Stage 3 social engagement system, Stage 3 social
communication and the joy that can come from it can be expressed
efficiently. Positive teacher/student interactions are thus critical to
student learning and teacher successes. Learning becomes a joyful
References and Resources
Eichhorn, N. (2012). Safety: The preamble for social engagement. An interview with Stephen W. Porges. Somatic Psychotherapy Today. Retrieved 5/20/2013 from 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. (2011). ‘Somatic perspectives’ series: Interview with Serge Prengel. USABP and EABP. Retrieved 5/19/2013 from http://www.somaticperspectives.com/.
Porges, S.W. (April, 2009). The Polyvagal Theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.
Porges, S.W. (May, 2004). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three. Retrieved 5/14/2013 from http://www.zerotothree.org/.
Porges, S.W. (n.d.). Stephen Porges. Retrieved 5/19/2013 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Porges.
Scaer, R.C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease. New York: Haworth Medical.
Barbara K. Given, Ph.D, initiated
the Special Education Teacher Preparation Program, served as Special
Education Program Coordinator, and co-directed The Adolescent and Adult
Learning Research Center and Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study 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. Given received two
prestigious research awards. In addition to publishing many articles,
she is the senior co-author of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (2015, Learning Forum Publications); Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems (2002, ASCD); Learning Styles: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (2000, Learning Forum Publications); and Alphabet Cue Cards (1972,
Ideal School Supply). In her retirement, Given is a GMU Associate
Professor Emerita of Special Education and Faculty Affiliate at Krasnow
Institute for Advanced Study.
Contact information: bgiven@GMU.edu.
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