I like what Rose Eveleth says about being open-minded in her NPR article from May 3, 2021. After discussing how our brain can develop implicit biases based on our upbringing and environment and then discussing how being curious can expand our worldview, she says we should take a deep breath and try to stay calm when we are fighting feelings of defensiveness and annoyance.
But how do we receive cues from others that might lead us to feel defensive and annoyed? And how do we stay calm when our bodies are telling us that something about a person or situation is just not right?
My tenure as the Section Chief of the FBI’s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF) was still in its early stages when I was asked to attend a meeting at the US Secretary of State headquarters. When I arrived at the conference room, there were about 30 people sitting around a number of tables arranged in a big square.
The topic dealt with a counterterrorism issue and it was obvious from the outset that some of the people in the room were not happy with the FBI. As I scanned the room, even before the meeting officially began, I could tell who was going to be our biggest obstacle. As the meeting progressed my instincts were correct.
While you might call it a vibe, I can now tell you that what I was experiencing from the person was a cue of danger. Maybe not physical danger, but certainly a cue that warned me of potentially emotional dangers.
Situations like the one I described were, for me, few and far between. While an element of danger is always present in a law enforcement profession, I did not live life in a state of stress or emotional hyperarousal because I was unsure of what was coming next.
While being on the lookout for constant danger is normal for people who have had severe childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences, we all move through a continuum of determining whether the cues we are receiving from others are cues of danger or cues of safety.
Understanding how our bodies react to cues of danger and safety is the science supporting The Polyvagal Theory.
The Polyvagal Theory was originated in 1969 by Dr. Stephen Porges who was seeking to explain how the vagus nerve “could be both a marker of resilience and a risk factor for newborns.” While his journey is beyond the scope of this article, how his theory has been applied is of immense importance.
Deb Dana, the author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, provides an easy-to-understand explanation of the work of the vagus nerve and how Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory is important in our daily lives.
Dana informs us that the vagus nerve (one of 12 cranial nerves) runs from our brain stem at the base of the skull in two directions: “downward through the lungs, heart, diaphragm, and stomach and upward to connect with nerves in the neck, throat, eyes, and ears.”
The vagus nerve is divided into two parts: the ventral vagal pathway and the dorsal vagal pathway. The ventral vagal is what responds to the cues of safety we receive from others which allows us to engage and feel connected. The dorsal vagal pathway is what responds to the cues of danger and prevents us from being connected to others. We experience this sensation when we “feel frozen, numb, or ‘not here.’” In other words, we shut down in order to survive.
If you pictured the vagal pathway system on a ladder, the ventral vagal would be at the top. This is the part of the parasympathetic nervous system where you feel safe and are able to socially engage with others. It’s here where you feel at your best. You feel organized, productive, playful, healthy, and well-rested.
In the middle of the ladder would be the sympathetic nervous system which is where the feeling of needing to mobilize because of danger originates. It’s here where you prepare to either fight or flee. You feel anxious and angry. You feel a sense of distress in your relationships, and you start sleeping poorly, gaining weight, and feeling prone to illness.
At the bottom of the ladder is the dorsal vagal. This is also part of the parasympathetic nervous system and is where you start feeling overwhelmed, frozen, or in severe danger. The dorsal vagal response can cause you to faint or collapse. It’s here where we feel abandoned or hopeless and have no energy.
I think it’s fair to say that we all have experienced moving between these rungs of the ladder. There’s nothing weird about that! Our brains are trying to protect us from trauma.
While, admittedly, the science can become a little overwhelming, it’s not hard to understand that our brain starts making all these decisions before we are cognizant of the thoughts. What our nervous system is receiving are the cues of safety or danger we are receiving from others when we see or engage them.
Dr. Porges calls the automatic response to the cues of safety and danger “neuroception.”
We are familiar with “perception” which is when we are aware of sensations. Out of our perceptions, we make discernments, i.e., grasping and comprehending what is happing. Therefore, according to Dr. Porges, our bodies move from neuroception to perception to discernment.
Here’s where the science of the Polyvagal Theory becomes important to our discussion of implicit bias and trust.
When we are in harmony or regulated, we often seek to be in relationships with other people. We converse freely, we express and receive empathy, we talk and listen. The ventral vagal part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) helps us be socially engaged. However, the only way we can feel engaged is when we feel safe because we have received cues of safety.
When we feel safe, because we are safe, then we are at the top of the ladder in our ventral vagal state and have access to a wide range of responses including being “calm, happy, meditative, engaged, attentive, active, interested, excited, passionate, alert, ready, relaxed, savoring, and joyful.”
“In the ventral vagal state, hope arises and change happens.”
It’s neuroception that allows us to send cues of safety which manifest in how we speak, our facial expressions, and the subtle movements of our head. “Neuroception results in the gut feelings, the heart-informed feelings, the implicit feelings that move us along the continuum between safety and survival response.” (italics added)
In other words, it is the automatic neuroception that moves us up and down our ladder before we even know we are climbing or descending.
When we receive cues of danger, our neuroception informs our sympathetic and dorsal vagal systems, and we either fight or flee (sympathetic) or shut down (dorsal). “To expect a person to access the qualities of social engagement when they are caught in a neuroception of danger is futile.”
We can see how operating out of our ventral vagal system is drastically different from operating out of our dorsal vagal system. It’s almost the difference between day and night.
With the understanding of neuroception and moving between a state of safety and a state of danger, Dana finally pulls this information together and states the question our bodies are asking each time we meet someone, “Is this person safe and trustworthy?”
That is THE question. “Is this person safe and trustworthy?”
When your child meets a teacher for the first time, he or she is asking that question.
When you meet a new doctor for the first time, you are asking that question.
When you encounter a police officer on a darkened road, you are asking that question.
When you meet a new co-worker or supervisor, you are asking that question.
When you meet someone in the hopes of forming an intimate relationship, you are asking that question.
When you meet anyone, you are asking that question.
And they are asking that same question about you.
Next week, in our last look at this subject, we will tie together the threads running through implicit bias, trust, and the Polyvagal Theory and see what lessons we can learn.
Until then, keep thinking big thoughts.
Rose Eveleth, “You’re Probably Not As Open-Minded As You Think. Here’s How To Practice,” National Public Radio, May 3, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/28/991700784/youre-probably-not-as-open-minded-as-you-think-heres-how-to-practice Deb Dana,The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018: pp3-4. Deb Dana, p8. Deb Dana, p9. This is also where we feel our anxiety and stress and what often causes our stomachs to hurt in response. Deb Dana, p10. Deb Dana, p11. Deb Dana, p12, 19. Deb Dana, p4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/perception https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discernment Deb Dana, webinar, March 5, 2021; Deb Dana,The Polyvagal Theory, p6. Deb Dana, p26.[ 13]Deb Dana, p27. Deb Dana, p35. Deb Dana, p37.  Deb Dana, p37.