Making the World Safe for our Children: Down-regulating Defence and Up-regulating Social Engagement to ‘Optimise’ the Human Experience

The Polyvagal Theory helps us understand how cues of risk and safety, which are continuously monitored by our nervous system, influence our physiological and behavioral states. The theory emphasizes that humans are on a quest to calm neural defense systems by detecting features of safety. This quest is initiated at birth when the infant needs for being soothed are dependent on the caregiver. The quest continues throughout the lifespan with needs for trusting friendships and loving partnerships to effectively co-regulate each other. The Polyvagal Theory proposes that through the process of evolution, social connectedness evolved as the primary biological imperative for mammals in their quest for survival. Functionally, social connectedness enabled proximity and co-regulation of physiological state between conspecifics starting with the mother-infant relationship and extending through the lifespan with other significant partners. The theory explains why feeling safe requires a unique set of cues to the nervous system that are not equivalent to physical safety or the removal of threat. The theory emphasizes the importance of safety cues emanating through reciprocal social interactions that dampen defense and how these cues can be distorted or optimized by environmental and bodily cues.

Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety

The author describes recent findings on the neurobiological mechanisms involved in perceptions of risk and safety. The term “Neuroception” describes how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. Neuroception explains why a baby coos at a caregiver but cries at a stranger, or why a toddler enjoys a parent’s embrace but views a hug from a stranger as an assault. The author explains the Polyvagal Theory, which posits that mammals–especially primates–have evolved brain structures that regulate both social and defensive behaviors. The Polyvagal Theory describes three developmental stages of a mammal’s autonomic nervous system: immobilization, mobilization, and social communication or social engagement. A neuroception of safety is necessary before social engagement behaviors can occur. Infants, young children, and adults need appropriate social engagement strategies in order to form positive attachments and social bonds. Faulty neuroception might lie at the root of several psychiatric disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, and Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Conflict Hotline

Berkeley Community Television broadcast 22 episodes of the Conflict Hotline, a monthly television show featuring Miki Kashtan and other BayNVC trainers. A Conflict Coach, usually Miki, guided the other trainers through role-plays in order to support callers and other viewers in learning about using NVC for resolving conflicts and for healing. Previously the show was broadcast on KPFA radio. Many people have found this to be an exciting way to bring NVC alive for viewers.