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Update 25 April 2023: Added section “”Asocial Reptiles” and “Social Mammals”: A False Dichotomy”.
If you’ve ever seen the terms “ventral vagal” or “dorsal vagal” outside of an advanced anatomy textbook, you’ve probably encountered polyvagal theory. This theory, introduced by psychologist Stephen Porges, makes specific claims about the evolution, anatomy, and physiology of the vagus nerve and autonomic regulation of the heart, and parlays those claims into hypotheses about the interplay between the autonomic nervous system and human psychology and sociality.
Polyvagal theory as an explanatory model, while receiving little to no acceptance in the fields of autonomic physiology or neurobiology, has become – dare I say – gospel in the communities of “trauma-informed” somatic and psychotherapy. (6, 7, 8)
Polyvagal theory also makes frequent appearances in communities that promote “rewiring” the autonomic nervous system as a way to treat illnesses such as chronic fatigue syndrome, POTS, and various autoimmune diseases.
I’ve even seen it in health and wellness spaces that aren’t focused on trauma or illness – for instance, on the Bulletproof YouTube channel, or in the Instagram posts of “pro-metabolic” nutrition influencers. It seems that polyvagal theory has become relevant for just about anyone interested in human health.
The comments below the Dave Asprey video give an idea of the enthusiasm and gratitude with which polyvagal theory is most often received. However, the theory has also been criticized by some scientists, most notably psychosomatic researcher Paul Grossman.
The exchanges between these two researchers have been largely unproductive, and I suspect this is in large part due to the fact that Grossman is critiquing polyvagal theory purely at the level of biology, while Porges conceptualizes the theory primarily within the contexts of experimental psychophysiology or broadly integrative “mind-body” research. Thus, I propose that polyvagal theory and its attendant controversy cannot be understood through analysis at the level of biology alone.
As such, in this article I’ll provide a critique of polyvagal theory as biology, as a model for psychophysiology, and as a biopsychosocial framework. I also include two additional levels of analysis that reflect the sociocultural roles that polyvagal theory has taken on: as direction and justification for clinical therapies, and as an “illness myth.”[Read more…] about Polyvagal Theory: A Critical Appraisal