Friday, March 29, 2019


Dr. Porges work on the polyvagal nerve system has my attention.  It's like the "Blue Tooth" mysterious connection between computers and printers or cordless earphones -- but in this case between humans.  

I always look for ways to talk about empathy without having to tediously disentangle it from sympathy, which is when one has an emotion about someone else but doesn't really feel what they're feeling.  It makes me impatient when people say, "Oh, I just know exactly how you feel!" when they don't at all.  Trying to claim commonality when it's not there only disrupts understanding.  There is no possible way they could be participating in my inner life -- they just want to think they are.  This is the problem between those who think that DNA protein recipes mean something (like blood) but have no participation in the deep relationship to the eco-world that forms our under-human animal understanding.

Real empathy means real connection, mysterious as it may be.  Now with Dr. Porges' research on the cranial nerves that create what he calls the "social engagement system" we can pull several things together, like mirror cells, Victor Turner's "liminal time," and D. W. Winnicott's space between the attached mother and infant.  "Social engagement system" is a safe name for the connected loops of Dr. Porges' discoveries, but it sounds too much like a Daytimer or a dance card.  So far I've not found a better name, but it will be a synonym for engagement or "in sync" but less mechanically based.

Many people are preoccupied with the "boundary" between who is "civilized" and who is not, except that it is much confused by our realization that those who seemed to be savages were simply part of culture we don't recognize.  And then there is the realization that "cultures" are enforced via the uncivilized barbarism of stigma, that cultures can be inappropriately enforced by people who have left the ecosphere where they were invented and fitting.  Something similar is true of education, bureaucracy, and religious institutions:  all forms of elites and hierarchies meant to guide power.  Everyone wants to take it with them.

Another set of worriers concentrate on the fat and wavering boundary between humans and "other" animals.  Clothing, tools, words, and inhabitation are all fascinating and susceptible to declarations about what they mean.  These folks proud of being human are about the "other" who is even more "other" than people who dress differently, cook differently, raise their children to be "other."  Then in strolls a bonobo wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar, who goes to the drinks tray and pours himself a libation.  Just don't rile him up -- his way of solving disagreement is sex.

I'm still drawing on a vital document:  "The Polyvagal Theory: New Insights into Adaptive Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System."  Among many other things, it is the apparatus of peace, which we have largely eliminated from our world.  Even in vids of speakers or on Skype the editor inserts illustrations, graphs, background info which eliminate our access to the human "screen" of face and attitude, posture and neck tilt, from which we derive our commonality and understanding.

Here's a more technical quote:  " . . . through the process of evolution, the brainstem nuclei that regulate the myelinated vagus became integrated with the nuclei that regulate the muscles of the face and head. This link results in the bidirectional coupling between spontaneous social engagement behaviors and bodily states. Specifically, an integrated social engagement system emerged in mammals when the neural regulation of visceral states that promote growth and restoration (via the myelinated vagus) was linked neuroanatomically and neurophysiologically with the neural regulation of the muscles controlling eye gaze, facial expression, listening, and prosody."  [I added the emphasis.]

THE MYELINATED VAGUS:  First think of the cranial nerves that come out of brain parts and reach the rest of the body.  Myelinated means insulated with a form of fat in order to travel faster and carry more info.  

BRAINSTEM NUCLEI:  If you want to really grasp "understanding brainstem cranial nerve nuclei" this is the link to a lecture. .

BIDIRECTIONAL COUPLING: These strands of nerve plug into each other and the "bi" ones send messages both from the brain or into the brain.  This is the key.  What you are doing is directly connected to how safe and confident you are.  The more your homeostasis is good, the better the system works.

NEURO ANATOMICAL VS. NEURO PHYSIOLOGICAL are (first) the arrangements of the structures and (second) how they operate.  Together they are NEURO REGULATION.  If you were a piano, they'd be music.

This system regulates the muscles controlling eye gaze, facial expression, listening, and prosody.  This means that all "felt" thought is transmitted to expression, whether small tensions in muscles around the eyes or full-on facial transformation in joy or rage.  Even if a person tries to be expressionless, the felt meanings will be there.  In fact, animals may be better at detecting them than are humans.  (They "cheat" by adding smell.)  The difference is that animals don't have this exquisite ground of presentation from scalp to collarbone, which turns on the Blue Tooth function of empathy.

I need to go think this over some more.  What happens when are confronted by Trump via video?  If a delusional or consciously acting person uses the screen meant for communication, what is happening?  Actors and some therapists will tell you that they still feel empathically what the presenter is expressing.  They participate in the emotion, even if it is "felt" in bad faith, untrue.  But also they pick up the more subtle undermessage. Trump uses his "flubber face" of heightened emotion to conceal the small giveaways that sneak through when he's enjoying the crowd response.  It works on a podium.  On a vid, not so much.

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