What is trauma exactly? Or the ever-elusive concept known as the “flow state”? And why do some people just flat-out creep us out? It can all be explained by the autonomic nervous system — our body’s autopilot that keeps our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and our gut digesting; without us even thinking about it. The Polyvagal Theory is a new understanding of how our nervous system works, and explains everything from trauma, to the very essence of social behavior; while shedding light on possible treatments for autism and trauma. You’ll never think of your body and brain the same way again.
The presenter, Seth Porges, appears on numerous TV shows on the Travel, Science, Discovery, History, and National Geographic channels. He also contributes to Bloomberg Business, Instyle, Forbes, New York mag, and Departures, amongst others. He holds the world record for most Nerd Nite talks ever given. Follow him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/sethporges
You are not just thinking with your brain.
This has been a golden age for brain research. We now have amazing brain scans that show which networks in the brain ramp up during different activities. But this emphasis on the brain has subtly fed the illusion that thinking happens only from the neck up. It’s fed the illusion that the advanced parts of our thinking are the “rational” parts up top that try to control the more “primitive” parts down below.
So it’s interesting how many scientists are now focusing on the thinking that happens not in your brain but in your gut. You have neurons spread through your innards, and there’s increasing attention on the vagus nerve, which emerges from the brain stem and wanders across the heart, lungs, kidney and gut.
The vagus nerve is one of the pathways through which the body and brain talk to each other in an unconscious conversation. Much of this conversation is about how we are relating to others. Human thinking is not primarily about individual calculation, but about social engagement and cooperation.
One of the leaders in this field is Stephen W. Porges of Indiana University. When you enter a new situation, Porges argues, your body reacts. Your heart rate may go up. Your blood pressure may change. Signals go up to the brain, which records the “autonomic state” you are in.
Maybe you walk into a social situation that feels welcoming. Green light. Your brain and body get prepared for a friendly conversation. But maybe the person in front of you feels threatening. Yellow light. You go into fight-or-flight mode. Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech. Or maybe the threat feels like a matter of life and death. Red light. Your brain and body begin to shut down.
According to Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory,” the concept of safety is fundamental to our mental state. People who have experienced trauma have bodies that are highly reactive to perceived threat. They don’t like public places with loud noises. They live in fight-or-flight mode, stressed and anxious. Or, if they feel trapped and constrained, they go numb. Their voice and tone go flat. Physical reactions shape our way of seeing and being.
“You might think that in everyday life, the things you see and hear influence what you feel, but it’s mostly the other way around: What you feel alters your sight and hearing,” Barrett writes in “How Emotions Are Made.”
When we’re really young we know few emotion concepts. Young children say, “Mommy, I hate you!” when they mean “I don’t like this” because they haven’t learned their culture’s concepts for hatred vs. badness. But as we get older we learn more emotional granularity. The emotionally wise person can create distinct experiences of disappointment, anger, spite, resentment, grouchiness and aggravation, whereas for a less emotionally wise person those are all synonyms for “I feel bad.”
A wise person may know the foreign words that express emotions we can’t name in English: tocka (Russian, roughly, for spiritual anguish) or litost (Czech, roughly, for misery combined with the hunger for revenge). People with high emotional granularity respond flexibly to life, have better mental health outcomes and drink less.
If bodily reactions can drive people apart they can also heal. Martha G. Welch of Columbia University points to the importance of loving physical touch, especially in the first 1,000 minutes of life, to lay down markers of emotional stability.
Under the old brain-only paradigm, Welch argues, we told people to self-regulate their emotions through conscious self-talk. But real emotional help comes through co-regulation. When a mother and a child physically hold each other, their bodily autonomic states harmonize, connecting on a metabolic level. Together they move from separate distress to mutual calm.
Welch has created something called the Welch Emotional Connection Screen, which measures the emotional connection between mothers and pre-term babies. By encouraging this kind of deep visceral connection through 18 months, her therapy can mitigate the effects of autism.
When you step back and see the brain and body thinking together, the old distinction between reason and emotion doesn’t seem to make sense. Your very perception of the world is shaped by the predictions your brain is making about your physical autonomic states.
You also see how important it is to teach emotional granularity, something our culture pays almost no attention to.
You also see that we’re not separate brains, coolly observing each other. We’re physical viscera, deeply interacting with each other. The important communication is happening at a much deeper level.
Gabor Maté shows how Tim Ferriss’s anger that a contractor didn’t finish work is due to his own problem seeing himself as worthy of respect or honor.
Listen to all the other episode of my Under The Skin podcast on Luminary:
The decisive factor in next week’s election — and the reason for Benjamin Netanyahu’s durability — is a repressed memory.
JERUSALEM — When trying to understand Israel’s election on Sept. 17, the second in the space of six months, you can easily get lost in the details — corruption charges, coalition wrangling, bickering between left and right. But the best explainer might be a small film that you’re unlikely to see about something that people here prefer not to discuss.
The opening scene of “Born in Jerusalem and Still Alive,” which just won the prize for best first feature at the Jerusalem Film Festival, catches the main character grimacing as he overhears a glib tour guide. When she describes downtown Jerusalem to her group as “beautiful,” the “center of night life and food for the young generation,” Ronen, an earnest man in his late 30s, interrupts.
“Don’t believe her,” he tells the tourists in Hebrew-accented English. “You see this market? Fifteen years ago it was a war zone. Next to my high school there was a terror attack. Next to the university there was a terror attack. First time I made sex — terror attack.” One of the tourists sidles over, interested. “Yes,” Ronen tells her, “we had to stop.”
No single episode has shaped Israel’s population and politics like the wave of suicide bombings perpetrated by Palestinians in the first years of the 21st century. Much of what you see here in 2019 is the aftermath of that time, and every election since has been held in its shadow. The attacks, which killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, ended hopes for a negotiated peace and destroyed the left, which was in power when the wave began. Any sympathy that the Israeli majority had toward Palestinians evaporated.
More than any other single development, that period explains the durability of Benjamin Netanyahu, which outsiders sometimes struggle to understand. Simply put, in the decade before Mr. Netanyahu came to power in 2009, the fear of death accompanied us in public places. There was a chance your child could be blown up on the bus home from school. In the decade since, that has ceased to be the case. Next to that fact, all other issues pale. Whatever credit the prime minister really deserves for the change, for many voters it’s a good enough reason to keep him in power on Sept. 17.
Given the centrality of those years, it’s striking how seldom they actually come up in conversation. Along Jaffa Road, the hardest-hit street (and the setting for “Born in Jerusalem”), the traces have become nearly invisible. The Sbarro pizzeria where in 2001 a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 15 people, including seven children and a pregnant woman, is now a bakery with a different name. It’s a few paces from where I’m writing these lines, and it’s full of customers, many of whom probably don’t know what happened there.
That’s what “Born in Jerusalem” is about. Not politics, but the repression of personal memory that has allowed us to move on while leaving an unsettling sense of missing time.
In another scene in the film, Ronen and his love interest, a Jerusalemite named Asia, discuss those years, which she can call only “the time of the attacks.” It allows him to point out the period’s strangest feature, which is that it doesn’t have a name. The Palestinians called it the “second intifada,” and Israelis euphemized it as “the situation.”
It isn’t officially considered a war, even though it killed more Israelis than the Six-Day War of 1967. And no one can say exactly when it began or ended. The attacks picked up in the mid-1990s, as Israel pursued a peace deal and ceded land, but the worst came between 2000 and 2004. Though other forms of violence persist, the last Israeli fatality in a Palestinian suicide bombing was in 2008.
This repression of memory has helped the Palestinian leadership pretend that none of it ever happened, and few of the foreign journalists covering the country right now were here at the time. Why are moderate Israelis afraid to pull out of the West Bank? Why has the once-dominant left become a meager parliamentary remnant? Why is there a separation barrier? Why is the word “peace” pronounced with sarcasm while the word “security” carries a kind of supernatural weight? If you weren’t in Israel then and can’t access the national subconscious now, the answer will be elusive.
The film’s Ronen is the alter ego of Yossi Atia, 39, who plays him and wrote and co-directed the film. Mr. Atia, like me, lived through those years in Jerusalem as a college student. His character can’t bear the silence, or the feeling that he’s crazy for remembering, so he starts leading sightseeing tours of his own in the heart of the city: the Sbarro pizzeria, the place where two bombers exploded together near Zion Square, the vegetable market that got hit again and again.
He hands tourists old Nokia cellphones and has them simulate one of the period’s key rituals: the calls we used to make after attacks to tell our families we were O.K. It’s unclear if this is meant as education for the people he’s showing around, or therapy for him. He explains the odd social calculations that would follow an attack: If eight people, say, had just been killed on a bus, could you go out with a friend for a drink that evening? (Yes.) What if it was 12 people in a cafe? Could you go on a date? (No.) Ronen has an actual chart.
I remember those quandaries of terror etiquette, just as I remember standing at a bus stop when I heard a suicide bomber blow himself up and murder 11 people one street over, at Café Moment. My mother passed through the Nahariya train station right before a suicide bomber struck there, and my sister was in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University campus when Palestinians blew up a different cafeteria. I’ve got many more memories like that, all of them standard for the time.
When I spoke to Mr. Atia, he said he thought Israelis avoid the subject for an obvious reason: It’s too awful. Because the carnage wasn’t on a distant battlefield or limited to soldiers, the experience encompassed the whole society, and you don’t forget images or fear like that even if you’ve forced it all down to the murkiest layers of your brain. “It wasn’t a military war, it was a civil war, and the victims were civilians,” he said. His character, Ronen, wants to talk about it, and that makes him strange: “No one wants to listen.”
Mr. Atia’s movie doesn’t trade in any discernible anger at the Palestinians or anyone else, even when Ronen demonstrates how the Sbarro bomber rigged his explosives inside a guitar case. The approach is a kind of light surrealism. The closest thing to political comment comes when he points out that the memorial plaques from the bombings of the 1990s, the years of the peace process, followed the victims’ names with the traditional Jewish phrase “May their memories be blessed.” By the early aughts it had changed to a different phrase drawn from tradition: “May God avenge their blood.”
But he knows they happened, and so does the Israeli electorate. As a psychiatrist might tell us, the deeper something is repressed, the more power it exerts. So when Mr. Netanyahu declares in an election ad that “in the stormy Mideastern sea we’ve proven that we can keep Israel an island of stability and safety,” we all know what he means, even if we don’t vote for him. That’s his strongest card, and if he wins, that will be why. The scenario we’re afraid of is clear even if it doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t need one.
How technology reshapes consciousness.
Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically. Depression rates are surging and America’s mental health over all is deteriorating. What’s going on?
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, the scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it become a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.
As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.
That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.
Sometimes your online post can go viral and get massively admired or ridiculed, while other times your post can leave you alone and completely ignored. Communication itself, once mostly collaborative, is now often competitive, with bids for affection and attention. It is also more manipulative — gestures designed to generate a response.
People ensconced in social media are more likely to be on perpetual alert: How are my ratings this moment? They are also more likely to feel that the amount of attention they are receiving is inadequate.
As David Foster Wallace put it in that famous Kenyon commencement address, if you orient your life around money, you will never feel you have enough. Similarly, if you orient your life around attention, you will always feel slighted. You will always feel emotionally unsafe.
New social types emerge in such a communications regime. The most prominent new type is the troll, and in fact, Americans have elected a troll as the commander in chief.
Trolls bid for attention by trying to make others feel bad. Studies of people who troll find that they score high on measures of psychopathy, sadism and narcissism. Online media hasn’t made them vicious; they’re just vicious. Online has given them a platform to use viciousness to full effect.
Trolls also score high on cognitive empathy. Intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions and how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.
Trolling is a very effective way to generate attention in a competitive, volatile attention economy. It’s a way to feel righteous and important, especially if you claim to be trolling on behalf of some marginalized group.
Another prominent personality type in this economy is the crybully. This is the person who takes his or her own pain and victimization and uses it to make sure every conversation revolves around himself or herself. “This is the age of the Cry-Bully, a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper,” Julie Burchill wrote in The Spectator a few years ago.
The crybully starts with a genuine trauma. The terrible thing that happened naturally makes the crybully feel unsafe, self-protective and self-conscious to the point of self-absorption. The trauma makes that person intensely concerned about self-image.