• Emotional regulation and social behavior are psychological processes that respond to events, environment, and people. They shape our sense of self, help form relationships, and determine whether we feel safe in various contexts. Neural circuits are bidirectional, biobehavioral processes that mediate reciprocal communication between body states and brainstem structures: psychological processes influence body states, and body states influence psychological processes like perception (Polyvagal Theory, 257, 259, emphasis mine).
• Polyvagal Theory provides the context for cognition—the bodily states it describes make cognition possible or impossible.
• Neuroception—the unconscious perception of safety—triggers a response according to these systems, starting with the social engagement system (SES) and ending with the “freeze” behaviors as a last resort. It precedes perception.
- “The evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system provides the neurophysiological substrates for affective processes and stress responses”
- We react to real-world, environmental challenges with three neural circuits, in this order:
- 1) We react with our evolutionarily newest system, the Social Engagement System, a parasympathetic neural circuit that is expressed in the newer myelinated vagus nerve that “functions to facilitate pro-social behavior and to maintain calm behavioral states” (265-66).
- 2) If this doesn’t satisfy our quest for safety, we react spontaneously with the older, sympathetic nervous system that supports fight/flight behaviors. This system mediates between the two vagal circuits.
- If fight/flight fails, we resort to the oldest vagal circuit, a parasympathetic circuit expressed in the older, unmyelinated vagus nerve that inhibits motion and is linked to disassociation in response to trauma (playing dead, and having the sensation of floating out of your body).
- Pathways regulating the striated muscles of the face and head and the myelinated vagal fibers regulating the heart and lungs” (270).
- The SES calms the viscera and regulates facial muscles, “enabling and promoting positive social interactions in safe contexts” (270).
- Porges calls this the “brain-face-heart circuit,” and is both a stress reliever and responsible for the pro-sociality often exhibited by our species.
- “Specific bodily states foster different domains of behavior” (Porges, 278).
The phylogenetic stage of the autonomic nervous system determines the behavioral, physiological, and affective features of reactivity to things in the environment. Physiological state limits the range of adaptive behaviors and psychological experiences (265). Trauma can limit an individual’s ability to engage the vagal brake associated with the SES because trauma victims often have faulty neuroception and become hypervigilant, always reacting to the environment/people as though they are a threat.
The SES helps detect and express signals of safety in the environment—it “distinguish[es] and emit[s] facial expressions and intonation of vocalizations . . . By calming the viscera and regulating facial muscles, this system enables and promotes positive social interactions in safe contexts” (270). In other words, it helps us read body language, which is what dogs do as their primary modality of communication, and which is what we do when we are using our pre-conscious neuroception.
Implications of the Polyvagal Theory for poetics include the following:
- Affect is primary process and occurs before and informs cognition
- Polyvagal response in the CNS & ANS inform affect
- Both are evolutionarily earlier processes linked to survival value.
One of the main implications for poetics is that if we understand the affective basis of memory and cognition, our poetics will proceed from and value the “bottoms up” approach to information processing as do all our affective and cognitive processes. Again, these processing levels are bi-directionally linked and indissociable, so even if affect triggers other processes, it is still informed and shaped by secondary and tertiary process memory and cultural learning. Language and its effects are not primary, or secondary, but rather part of an integrated circuit in this approach.
We can see these patterns of bidirectionality as they are informed by Polyvagal Theory and its systems of response in the poem “Hotel Room, Patterns of Light” by the poet Kate Gale, from her aptly named book Mating Season (Tupelo Press):
HOTEL ROOM, PATTERNS OF LIGHT And now you whose face I have nearly forgotten Remember how you said you would change the world? Remember how you smoked weed and drank tea and told me in one hotel room after another how glad you were you knew your purpose? Remember how you painted me a picture on birch bark, a canoe paddling upstream carrying light in the stern? As if one canoe could make a difference. Remember how you went to Flagstaff to visit your mother? When you came back you said, I slept with this hooker over the holiday, Sweetness, had to see what it was like to order a woman around. I remember the pattern of light on the hallway floor shadowed with these little slivers of darkness that kept disappearing. I opened and closed my mouth several times without speaking. Like a fish I was. Before I left, I dropped the birch bark on the floor. You left it there, sat rocking back and forth. Don't go, you said. But you looked all hollow to me. I could see the door right through you. Your voice sounded faraway, like a radio station you can never tune in. I walked out into the cold air, open sunlight. Last I heard you were in furniture sales. Measuring success one couch at a time.
In the poem, Gale’s narrator’s affective responses replicate the phylogenetic hierarchy articulated by the Polyvagal Theory in terms of a freeze and dissociative response, and then move through Panksepp’s brainstem affects such as SEEKING, RAGE, and GRIEF before arriving at a cognitive evaluation of the main character that maintains within it traces of that RAGE. The poem begins with a direct address and an invocation of both forgetting and memory: an old lover’s face that is “nearly forgotten” is displaced by his words, which are not: the lover had claimed to “change the world,” to “know his purpose.” He honors the narrator by painting her a picture on birch bark, a “canoe paddling upstream carrying light in the stern.” The engagement this triggered in the narrator is made clear only by her dismissal: “as if one canoe could make a difference.” Clearly, however, it did, because the narrator has such a powerful response to what comes next: the lover had “slept with a hooker” to “see what it was like/to order a woman around.”
At this moment the narrator demonstrates the “freeze” response connected to the oldest manifestation of the central nervous system, a reaction triggered through the unmyelinated vagus that produces a dissociative response in response to trauma, a sense of floating out of ones’s body that the narrator experiences as she focuses on “the pattern of light on the hallway floor/shadowed with these little slivers of darkness.” She is frozen, reduced to that much evolutionarily earlier system that is characterizes the autonomic responses of reptiles, amphibians, and fish. She becomes a fish through this response, “open [ing] and clos[ing] my mouth/several times without speaking. Like a fish I was.” She disassociates from the other character and the scene: “Don’t go, you said. But you looked all hollow to me./I could see the door right through you.” The narrator comes back to herself enough to move, and “walk[s] out into the cold air/open sunlight.” The poem travels through the polyvagal responses of freezing and detachment, and then the primary processes of SEEKING and movement, an abandonment of this scene for something else. Still, the ending of the poem indicates a continuation of that first-stage autonomic response, more detachment. There is some kind of cognitive resolution through the recreation of the scene in the poem, but something remains unresolved on the affective level because the last lines still contain an expression of RAGE, though cognitively mediated through the secondary tertiary strategies of cynicism and evaluative judgment: “Last I heard you were in furniture sales./Measuring success one couch at a time.” We are left with the thunderstrike of the narrator’s RAGE, channeled into a triumph of (almost, but not quite) transcendent aesthetics.
Similarly to Gale but with the difference of a different affect valenced, the poet Bruce Snider recreates the hierarchy of affective response in his poem “Closing the Gay Bar Outside Gas City,” in his book Paradise, Indiana published by Pleiades Press:
Closing the Gay Bar Outside Gas City As if I’d dreamed it up, the front door Still swings, and the dance bell rings Before it dies amid alfalfa, stalks of corn. On the floor: a faded pair of jeans, Buttons from a shirt. Two condoms Coil like sleepy salamanders In the back. In Indiana nothing lasts For long, though here the bathroom lock Still sticks, nourished each winter By ice and snow. Outside: bones Of rabbits, possum-blur, some ghost’s Half-eye through the window screen Where now the only seed that spills is thorny Vine and thistle taking back what’s theirs. Even the magpies, locked in some Blood-sleep, stir in the eaves as if to speak of patience and regret. Stains from tossed eggs mar the sides, dents from stones pitched through windows boarded up where FAG and AIDS are sprayed in flaking paint along the front. In fifty years, only birds will couple here. Deer will pause where a door once opened out to starlight, locust thorns tearing like some last testament to beer and lust. Even now, a raccoon stirs near the window, looks in at me as it moves past, like some stranger no longer interested, some boy who left his lip print on the glass.
Here the poet perceives a set of artifacts from a different, lost time, which had profound affective significance for the poet. Like Gillan, Weil, and Gale, in this poem and in his work more generally, Snider grants precedence to affect even as he shows it in dialogue with the sometimes violent defamations of culture, themselves rooted in the RAGE that is in turn rooted in FEAR: “stones pitched through windows /boarded up where FAG and AIDS are sprayed in flaking paint along/the front.” It is precisely the relationship between primary process affects like FEAR as they interact with the presuppositions and names assigned through the cultures of cognition and their attendant hierarchies of values, the in-group/out-group exclusions that label, stigmatize, and segregate. What will surpass those labels, and undercutting them, is the shared infrastructure of bones and ice, condoms and “buttons from a shirt,” but these objects from both human and ecological worlds interact indissociably in the poet’s mind with the memories of those times when the bar was as full of LUSTful activity as the birds and deer. A shared affective infrastructure unites them in the narrator’s mind. The human world morphs into and shares a neuroceptual kinship with the animal: condoms become “sleepy salamanders,” magpies “speak of patience and regret.” Grief, loss, and longing radiate through the narrator’s world with palpable presence, taking on the ecological forms of “locust thorns tearing like some last testament/to beer and lust.” The human is itself an enactment of affect, the “beer and lust” which form the structure of desire that drives the poem.
The poem’s closing image—the raccoon experienced as a “stranger/no longer interested/some boy/who left his lip print on the glass”—is a powerful image of secondary emotions of pride and shame as they interact with the basic affects of GRIEF in response to this particular loss, and the larger, ontological loss the poem indicates: “In Indiana nothing lasts/for long” except the bathroom lock that “still sticks,” the “possum-blur” that is that creature’s dissolving flesh. The narrator is a neuroceptual bundle of affective impression, appropriating those neuroceptions and transmuting them through cognitive process to neurosymbolic figures that carry a much larger, still embodied meaning. The bidirectionality of affect is a powerful part of Snider’s poetics, informing cognition even as it is transformed by it. But the affective level is the level to which all others return, and it forms a fundamental bedrock for both perception (neuroception) and experience.
While my last three posts have focused on some of the basic assumptions that characterize affective neuroscience and how these might be used to inform an affective poetics, in my next post I will turn to the secondary and tertiary process memory as these are informed by affect in the work of poets Vivian Shipley, Jim Reese, and Jack Bedell, in order to begin to articulate the ways memory is structured by the brain as a narrative, and the implications this has for poetics.Stephen Porges, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. (New York: Norton, 2011).