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In this episode we’re going to be talking about the neuroscience of safety and how our sense of safety can be hugely important to the way we communicate and learn. Research shows that when we perceive threat, we go into a hyper-vigilant state and certain circuits of the brain shut down to focus on self-protection. If we can become aware of this as it’s happening we can not only use certain tools to mediate it, but we can also help others not end up in that state too.

We are extremely lucky today to go straight to the horses mouth so to speak of this research, speaking with the founder of Polyvagal Theory himself, Dr Stephen Porges. Dr. Porges is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Indiana University. He is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across several disciplines including anesthesiology, biomedical engineering, critical care medicine, ergonomics, exercise physiology, gerontology, neurology, neuroscience, obstetrics, pediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, psychometrics, space medicine, and substance abuse. 

In this episode we’ll be unpacking his Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behaviour. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms operating in several behavioural, psychiatric, and physical disorders. 

He is the author of several books which we’ll be mentioning in the interview and you can find links to in the show notes, and he is the creator of a music-based intervention, the Safe and Sound Protocol™, which currently is used by more than 1400 therapists to improve spontaneous social engagement, to reduce hearing sensitivities, to improve language processing and state regulation.

What we discuss in this episode:

00:00 Intro

06:29 What’s going on inside people’s heads? 

09:00 If your body is in a state of threat you can’t access certain areas of your brain

12:49 What does the Vagal nerve do?

15:00 The sympathetic nervous system for both fight and flight and excitement or exuberance - so good stress vs bad stress

17:00 Facial expression and tone of voice broadcast our physiological state via the Vagal nerve

18:30 What was the experience like of the theory emerging out of the research?

22:30 The link between the face/voice and regulation of the heart in new borns. Co-regulation between parent and child

24:00 Polyvagal Theory explained by its founder

24:30 Collaboration and connectedness for the evolution of human survival

26:00 Digestion problems when constantly problem solving

28:00 Bidirectionality feedback between physiological state and mental state

29:45 Respecting bodily feelings

32:00 Trauma, making ourselves numb, disassociation and turning off your body

34:00 2 systems of bidirectional feedback: between the individual brain and its body and between different bodies

35:00 Co-regulation VS co-exacerbation between individual and collective systems

39:00 The Vagal ‘break’ regulates the threshold of optimal interaction 

40:30 Dan Siegal’s ‘window of tolerance’

41:30 Trauma affects vagal efficiency, rendering even high vagal tone (break ability) useless 

43:00 Error in thinking about trauma, of focusing on event and not on bodily reaction and feelings

45:30 Stephen’s new book ‘Polyvagal safety: attachment, communication, self-regulation’

48:00 Physical and mental illness are the same, but medical professionals aren’t taught this

49:00 Organ function considered by medicine, but the neural regulation those organs depend on is ignored.

51:45 Vagal metrics to help explain ‘medically unexplained symptoms’

52:30 Social connection and safety directly assist neural regulation

54:00 ‘Neural exercise’ (play and social interaction) should be a fundamental part of a healthy education

55:00 Authoritarian threat based education methods inhibit rather than motivate learning

57:00 Moving beyond Paul McLean’s outdated concepts of the Triune brain and the Limbic system

1:03:45 Polyvagal theory working bottom up has simplicity but working top down has complexity

1:04:34 Being listened to is crucial to feeling safe

1:06:30 Hearing improves when we are calm and content

1:07:30 Voice cues for safety have been critical to man’s survival 

1:07:40 The ‘Safe and Sound’ protocol for inducing clam and safety

1:08:30 Safety cues triggering a reaction in trauma victims

1:12:00 Tools from Polyvagal theory for bypassing trauma triggers 

1:13:45 Listen to your body don’t hack it.


Books and References:

Dr. Stephen Porges ‘The pocket guide to polyvagal theory: the transformative power of feeling safe?’

Dr. Stephen Porges ‘Polyvagal safety: attachment, communication, self-regulation’

Dan Siegal’s ‘window of tolerance’ concept

Safe and Sound protocol™

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