Bridger & Caleb discuss the allegations that Polyvagal Theory is dead and the atmosphere they’d like to see within academic research.

Timeline and criticism of Polyvagal Theory

  • The initial paper on PVT was written by Porges
  • He had been working a lot on respiratory sinus arrhythmia in neonates
  • Importantly, some high-risk premature infants seemed to have more resilience than others 
  • The heart was thought to be a good predictor of this 
  • He published a formal paper on this in 1995 
  • Then, in the early 2000s, some researchers started a counter-narrative 
  • Subsequently, this snowballed into numerous publications against PVT 
  • Usings fallacies and things that aren’t actually in the original PVT
  • Further, there were claims that PVT was empirically invalidated and it should not be taught
  • Porges published a book in 2021 to respond to these criticisms 

Overview of Polyvagal Theory

  • In the evolutionary process, there comes a time where specialization of existing features occurs 
  • Instead of evolving new layers 
  • Porges emphasis is the specialization that humans have developed in the ventral system
  • Not the accretion 
  • Additionally, humans handle threats differently than other animals 
  • We have the capacity to self-calm and mitigate threat reactions through social cues and connection
  • Which can be advantageous over always becoming autonomically reactive 
  • Example of a constraining the autonomic response (32:15)
  • Ultimately, PVT can help us understand this reality
  • Additionally, human responses to threats can be more primal if a threat is serious
  • An individual’s experience, starting in-utero, will influence their reaction to a threat
  • Example of experience changing threat response ( 45:50)
  • In summary, PVT has several basic conclusions:
    • Mammals have two vagal pathways 
    • Evolution and development provide insight into changes in the brain stem that allow mammals to slow down when encountering threats and promote social communication 

Misconceptions and critiques of Polyvagal Theory

  • Evolutionary focus on the autonomic nervous system is inclusive of all vertebrates
    • PVT focus is only on the transition from reptiles to mammals,
    • where the autonomic nervous system is specialized to support sociality 
    • This regulation of cardiovascular function is not inclusive to all vertebrates
  • PVT states that mammals have a unique myelinated vagal pathway 
    • Further, this misconception says that since this is present in other vertebrates PVT is disproven 
    • Actually, Porges says that mammals have a uniquely myelinated vagal pathway 
    • Not that myelinated pathways are unique to mammals
  • Respiratory sinus arrhythmia is equivalent to any respiratory heart rate interaction observed in any vertebrate 
    • Essentially, non-mammalian vertebrates are regulating heart rate and respiratory systems in a different way and that disproves the theory 
    • PVT is not saying that humans are the only ones that do this 
    • Or that there is only one way to do this 
    • Just that humans do it differently than other mammals that have the same ability 
  • Importantly, critiques focus on the biological structure itself
  • But it’s the how and the why that structure is being used that makes the difference 
  • Regardless of PVT empirical validity, clinicians and patients have found it life-changing
  • Additionally, co-regulation is an essential component to life
  • Shifting from strictly biological validity to socially constructed utility
  • “The utility that I found in talking about PVT seems to honor and validate the human experience in such a way that creates more intimacy than we had beforehand” (1:19:19)
  • It doesn’t have to be art OR science, it can be both

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Executive Directors: Jennifer and Ryan Savage, Melissa Bentinnedi, Bridger Falkenstein
Hosts: Bridger Falkenstein, Caleb Boston, and  Melissa Benintendi
Filmographer: Tyler Wassam
Podcast Editor: Jamie Eggert
Original Music Composers: Bridger Falkenstein and Caleb Boston
Show Notes: Jamie Eggert & Jordan Murray