Book Review: The Polyvagal Theory, by Stephen Porges

The main points of the Polyvagal Theory are:

  1. The autonomic nervous system is much more important than is commonly acknowledged, and its care and safeguarding should be a primary objective throughout health and education institutions.
  2. In addition to being under-appreciated, the autonomic nervous system is misunderstood: (a) There are three branches, not two; (b) The branches are sequential, not purely reciprocal; and (c) The newest branch– social autonomic nervous system– trumps the other two– sympathetic and parasympathetic– in stress responses.
  3. Characterization of the sympathetic (“Fight or Flight”) and parasympathetic (“Rest and Rebuild”) is also a misunderstanding in that these terms are mixing sympathetic’s stress response with parasympathetic’s normal functioning. It would be much better to describe these in similarities! Here are the missing pieces: Sympathetic normal functioning is “Mobilization, etc.” and parasympathetic stress response is “freeze, etc..”
  4. Van der Kolk’s and Levine’s assertions (to the effect that trauma impact depends on how much betrayal was involved and how early the overwhelming event happened) is deeply confirmed by Porges. Re-establishment of social nervous system functioning and sympathetic’s defensive responses should be pre-eminent in all health care endeavors.

For more information on all this, please see the following resources:

Articles:

  1. Triune Autonomic Nervous System: The Polyvagal Theory (2 page intro)

Presentations:

  1. The Triune Autonomic Nervous System Powerpoint (7.1 MB)
  2. The Triune Autonomic Nervous System PDF (11.6 MB)

Audio/Video lectures:

  1. The PolyVagal Theory
  2. Anatomy of the Triune Nervous System (YouTube video)

Porges’ book is an essential step in advancing his ideas, but written for a highly technical scientific audience.

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