What the heck is Poly Vagal?

Dr. Stephen Porges emphasizes the importance of bidirectional neuro feedback between body and brain. Porges emphasizes the importance of relating to an organism (humans) from a bottom up perspective instead of a top down. He uses the example of Descartes, ” I think therefore, I am.” He explains that many of western therapies have been designed around this idea. What if we have it wrong? What if we understand the body from the perspective of ” I feel therefore I am.” What if our nervous system sends a signal to the brain which then creates the feelings and visceral reactions?

What is the Poly Vagal?

Lets break down the Poly Vagal Nerve Branches.

The Vagus Nerve is the nerve running from the brain stem down in to the autonomic nervous system. There are many branches but we will identify two that are related to nervous system responses.

The Dorsal Vagus Complex (DVC)

The Dorsal is a branch of the Vagus known for as the, “vegetative vagus,” because it is known for its lower level survival responses connected to our reptilian brain. In a simplified explanation lets just say that the theory postulates that reptiles freeze when threatened.

The Ventral Vagus or (VVC)

The Ventral Vagus is responsible for regulating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is known for responding to threat with either fight or flight. The (VVC ), is known as the smart vagus because it soothes the SNS through socialization behaviors with other mammals.

For example, a baby will often socially engage with its mother if she is not showing engagement. In the still face experiment we see a mother with flat affect and an infant beginning to feel threatened. The infants first response is to begin engaging with its mother by laughing, screaming, widening its eyes, and eventually if the mother does not react, we see the infant become extremely disturbed and then eventually shut down. The infant has attempted social engagement, understands fighting and flighting are not possible, resulting in reptilian response of immobilization.

Please note that none of these words I use regarding choice or decisions are pre frontal cortex responses. Instead the autonomic nervous system has its own instinctual reactions that are not connected to the pre frontal cortex part of the (thinking brain). All of these responses happen in milliseconds.

According to Stephen Porges theory of hierarchy of adaptation of responses the typical order to threat probably looks like the following:

  • Social Engagement:  i.e, turning to people you know for comfort or help
  • Fight/Flight:  i.e, fighting the threat or fleeing from the threat
  • Immobilization:  i.e,  the freeze response.

Possible choices within immobilization:

dissociation or freezing
going floppy or delirious like a mouse in a cat’s mouth
heart rate slows to cause death

Here is another example as to how my nervous system responded to earthquakes.

If the dorsal vagal response is strong or has become a line of defense in the past , then in the present it is quite possible that DVC (dorsal vagal ) will take over causing a freeze response. In some cases it is the response simply because there is no other reasonable choice.


For example, I used to be absolutely terrified of earthquakes when I was a child. We used to experience earthquakes a couple of time in a month. I remember literally freezing, and then once it was over after about 2 mins, I would run to my parents and scream my head off. This is an example of what Porges might describe as good example of how the nervous system was overridden by the (DVC ) as a result of recognizing within split seconds that:

  • no one else is in my immediate environment to turn to for safety.
  • If I run I will still be unsafe,
  • I can’t fight an earthquake

My Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is overwhelmed and my Dorsal Vagus (DVC) is taking over causing immobilization.
Once my (SNS) and (DVC) calms, I can now return to the first response (in the hierarchy of adaptation to threat) which is social engagement and find help from my parents by letting them know through screaming my head off that there is trouble .
In most cases, according to the hierarchy of response to threat, you would think I would have screamed my head off first as a way to ask for help (social engagement) , however, my system likely became overwhelmed enough, that the Vagus resorted to the reptilian response to this threat by immobilizing.

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