Body Wisdom: The Look of Love

The Look of Love

Do you wonder why some people make you feel uneasy? You might call it intuition or your gut feeling. “Neuroception” is a term used to describe how we pick up cues, unconsciously, from our environment and respond to them.

Neuroception was coined by neurophysiologist Stephen Porges who discovered the “polyvagal hierarchy.” Porges describes his work: “my research has focused on how neural regulation of physiological state influences behavior and how these mechanisms are related to how we interact socially.”

Curious about how people regulate their physiological state (feelings and emotions) in the presence of others, Porges realized that this ability was important to mental health and quality of life. Sensory input from the body reaches the brain and influences our reaction. Reciprocally, our brain impacts our viscera through our reactions to the environment.

Behavior is linked to neural circuits. There are ways to temper our defense response (fight or flight) in suitable settings. And our oldest defense system, which is immobilization, can be recruited to help us immobilize without fear as during sleep.

The autonomic nervous system originates in the brain stem and keeps us alive. This has two aspects: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic dominance indicates that we sense danger and our heart races as we prepare for fight or flight. Parasympathetic dominance occurs when we feel safe and relaxed.

The parasympathetic system consists of the two branches of a cranial nerve called the vagus originating in different areas on the brain stem (ventral and dorsal) before extending into the body. The ventral vagus controls organs above the diaphragm including the heart and lungs. The dorsal vagus controls organs below the diaphragm collectively known as the viscera.

Normally the parasympathetic system is considered as purely restorative. But Porges discovered an older defense system in the dorsal vagus that we share with other vertebrates including reptiles – the freeze response. Mammals, however, can’t “play dead” for very long because our brains need oxygen. This defense strategy is a last resort when our lives are threatened and we pass out.

The sympathetic branch is a newer evolutionary development. It increased mammalian capacity to respond to danger through movement – flight or fight. Mammals evolved in a threatening environment and this system promoted survival.

Mammals need other mammals to survive for nursing and raising families. The most recent evolution is the ventral vagus which controls the heart and lungs and is connected to the face muscles.

This is the “social engagement” system where we enjoy camaraderie with others. When we see a friendly face or hear a sweet voice our nervous system registers safety so we can relax.

Our first line of defense is to seek social support from others. If that fails, fight, flight or freeze kicks in. This is the hierarchy. Discovering the factors that invoke a sense of safety is critical. While people might mentally define safety, Porges notes, “Being safe is really the body’s response to the environment.”

To reduce reactivity remember the polyvagal hierarchy and be nice to each other!

Nancy Ivey teaches yoga at CSUB and locally. Email