The great American psychophysiologist, Professor Stephen Porges, has discovered that the autonomic nervous system does not function by alternating mobilization (activation of the branch known as “sympathetic”) and resting (activation of the branch known as “parasympathetic”), as was thought before. Instead, his model describes a hierarchy of three levels of functioning, managed by three different systems:
- The Social Engagement System, which allows, through a myelinated branch of the vagus, to precisely and flexibly regulate the degree of excitement, so that we can respond appropriately and with care to others. He speaks of the “social engagement system”, because this myelinated vagus (which controls breathing and heart beat frequency) is directly related to
– Nerves of the face (the trigeminal nerve and the facial nerve) and therefore to nuanced affective expression
– The nerves that control the throat and thus the quality of vocal expression; the inner ear and thus the ability to really listen to the other; the positioning the head and thus to our capacity to orient ourselves to more subtle changes in the environment; the iris and “crow’s feet” outside eyes and thus the regard we have for others.
- The Mobilization System, which allows us to protect ourselves against dangers, by activating the so-called “flight” and “flight” responses.
- The Immobilisation System which serves to makes us relatively “invisible”, “inaudible” and “anesthetized” when we can not defend ourselves with by fighting or fleeing. It’s so to speak our last defense, when nothing else will work anymore, but it comes with a price: feelings of powerlessness, emptiness, depression predominate. This Immobilisation System is controlled by the non-myelinated branch of the vagus, and also controls the viscera below the diaphragm.
In this perspective, the problems that incite people to look for psychotherapeutic help are related to a too frequent activation of the Mobilization System and / or of the Immobilization System, and especially to a relative inability to activate Social Engagement System, the system which allows us to optimally regulate our emotions and communicate with empathy and accuracy.
A significant number of my approaches can restore the resources associated with this Social Engagement System.