Information Age Education
   Issue Number 182
March, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, six free books based on the newsletters are available: Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

Editor’s note: This article explores an important part of the molecular and systems organizations that our brain uses to enhance our body/brain's survival. About a dozen of the articles that will appear later in this IAE Newsletter series will provide examples of activities and programs that activate the feelings of satisfaction and joy that learning enhances.

Polyvagal Theory Helps to Explain the Joy in Learning

(Adapted from chapter 5 in the IAE book Consciousness and Morality.

Barbara Given
Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education
George Mason University

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the human body. It begins in the brain stem, and its connections with all body organs helps to regulate them. In his educationally significant article, Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges (April, 2009) suggests that in mammalian species, the vagus nerve evolved through three distinct stages that support essential behaviors, including those that enhance the levels of satisfaction and joy we feel in learning.

Stage One (Immobilization as Defense)

The most ancient branch of the vagus nerve produces a reaction that conserves metabolic resources by slowing heart rate and lowering blood pressure, often to the point of unconsciousness. Extreme fear immobilizes animals so they can avoid being seen and thus harmed. A mouse will slow its physiological functioning when caught in the jaws of a cat that simply holds it without biting down. The frightened mouse appears dead and may even die if left in that immobile state. If released, the mouse will remain motionless until its internal organs once again function normally, at which point the mouse will rapidly scurry away.

Fear may similarly cause humans to faint, or the mind to go numb and separate emotion and attention from the experience that produces amnesia of parts of the event (Scaer, 2001). When we’re cornered or held down by a larger person (such as when beaten or raped), this immobilization mode tends to block some of the event’s anguish and pain. Traumatic events such as fighting in a war may have a similar impact. When soldiers see their friends blown up, the freeze reaction unconsciously sets in and the viewer becomes immobilized and often psychologically dissociated. Guilt at not rushing to their friends’ defense often plagues survivors even though they had no conscious control over their reactions. Survivors of fearful situations generally need help to understand and overcome the residue of immobilization reactions.

Stage Two (Mobilization as Defense)

Unconscious environmental stimulation can instantly trigger an automatic self-preservation fight or flight response. It’s a kill or be killed, a flee or be eaten or beaten response. Awareness may shortly set in and we may wonder why we’re running or fighting so ferociously. LeDoux (1996) describes how flight automatically occurs when a rattlesnake is about to strike––we run away before we consciously know what’s happening.

Porges explains that a high level of sensitivity results as our nervous system continually processes and evaluates the risk of incoming challenges. This process does not require conscious awareness and may detect danger before we are consciously aware of the nature of the challenge (Porges, May, 2004).

In school, mild forms of stage two behaviors occur when students “fight” with back talk or oppositional behavior in an environment they consider unsafe. They may avoid others with whom they feel emotionally or socially uncomfortable.

Stage Three (Social Engagement)

In mammals, a unique branch of the vagus nerve evolved to link the heart's neural regulation to the regulation of facial and head muscles. In order for mammals to manage this functional shift, the Polyvagal Theory emphasizes that sensory information from both the environment and our visceral organs travels from our body to our brain, affecting how we respond to the environment.

In contrast to the unmyelinated axon extensions of Stages 1 and 2 that travel from the body to the brain, Stage 3 information also travels from our body to our brain through mylenated (insulated) axons of the vagus nerve. Via cognition, positive or negative self talk, and interactions with others, this system influences our nervous system and produces feelings of either safety or risk. The Poyvagal Theory suggests that positive reciprocal human interactions regulate one another's physiological states and help us to feel safe, maintain our health, and survive by facilitating the regulation of our physiology.

The uniquely mammalian stage three vagus nerve can help us to heal. Consciously engaging neural pathways from the human brain to the body can effectively dampen the visceral reactions of fight or flight. Self-talk can calm our mind so it can assess a situation to determine if danger exists. Learning in an emotionally and socially safe school setting can thus calm our nervous system with components in the body and brain that relax and make social engagement possible.

The Polyvagal Theory emphasizes a hierarchical relation among the three evolutionary stages. The newer circuits of Stage 3 (social engagement) inhibit the older Stage 2 (mobilization) and Stage 1 (immobilization) defensive behaviors. What's interesting and educationally relevant is that Stage 2 defensive mobilization strategies may actually keep us from reflexively using Stage 1 immobilization as a defense as it behaviorally shuts down, dissociates, and possibly causes fainting.

This new way of thinking is perhaps Porges's most exciting insight. Even though self-talk has been valued for many years (Luria, 1961), understanding why self-talk works is a cognitive breakthrough: (1) the mammalian strand of the vagus nerve and its branches are uniquely myelinated; and (2) the Stage 3 mammalian strands link to the muscles of the face and head as well as to internal organs, so we have come to understand that smiles suggest happiness, and that voice rhythm, intonation, volume, etc., reflect types of emotional communication and contingent social behavior (Porges, April, 2009).

However, if mind and body fail to recognize the environment as safe, the systems will remain in Stage 2 flight-fight readiness. Social engagement will continue to be guarded, oppositional behaviors or withdrawal will be present, and the formation of relationships will only be superficial if they are formed at all (Porges, May, 2004; April, 2009).

Porges (in Eichhorn, 2012) states that unless we can turn off our evolutionarily programmed defense systems, we give up positive access to such social engagement components as benevolence, care, compassion, and shared experiences. This happens because we are stuck in a survival mode, mobilized for defensive states that result in “biological rudeness.” The whole aspect of what is gained by being interactive with another person has disappeared. Even in the absence of danger, fear, or trauma, it is extremely difficult to shut off the residue from immobilization trauma or the mobilization of fight/flight behaviors that influence our mind and body, such as seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of victimized adults and children.

From his study of HIV patients and autistic children, Porges (2011) found that caregivers often feel unloved, angered, and insulted because the patient fails to respond with appropriate facial expressions and vocal intonation.

This insight may transfer to relationships between students and teachers, especially when students look away rather than make eye contact or otherwise let teachers know they are engaged. Teachers may try to motivate such students without realizing that they may be suffering from freeze/fight/flight residue that forces them to keep up their guard. Teachers may not like such students, may become angry or aggressive, and may even ridicule and blame them for not caring about learning. Teachers may feel guilty and frustrated without realizing that neither the students’ behaviors nor theirs were willful, but rather were attempts by our nervous system to protect the student from further harm, and the teacher from feeling rejection and disappointment.

When our Stage 2 mobilized and Stage 1 immobilized vagus circuits are inhibited by our Stage 3 social engagement system, Stage 3 social communication and the joy that can come from it can be expressed efficiently. Positive teacher/student interactions are thus critical to student learning and teacher successes. Learning becomes a joyful experience.

References and Resources

Eichhorn, N. (2012). Safety: The preamble for social engagement. An interview with Stephen W. Porges. Somatic Psychotherapy Today. Retrieved 5/20/2013 from;; and

LeDoux, J. (1996). Emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Luria, A.R. (1961). The role of speech in the regulation of normal and abnormal behavior. Oxford, New York: Pergamon.

Porges, S.W. (2011). ‘Somatic perspectives’ series: Interview with Serge Prengel. USABP and EABP. Retrieved 5/19/2013 from

Porges, S.W. (April, 2009). The Polyvagal Theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine.

Porges, S.W. (May, 2004). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three. Retrieved 5/14/2013 from

Porges, S.W. (n.d.). Stephen Porges. Retrieved 5/19/2013 from

Scaer, R.C. (2001). The body bears the burden: Trauma, dissociation, and disease. New York: Haworth Medical.


Barbara K. Given, Ph.D, initiated the Special Education Teacher Preparation Program, served as Special Education Program Coordinator, and co-directed The Adolescent and Adult Learning Research Center and Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, VA. She is a former Director of the Center for Honoring Individual Learning Diversity, an International Learning Styles Network Center. Given received two prestigious research awards. In addition to publishing many articles, she is the senior co-author of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (2015, Learning Forum Publications); Teaching to the Brain's Natural Learning Systems (2002, ASCD); Learning Styles: A Guide for Teachers and Parents (2000, Learning Forum Publications); and Alphabet Cue Cards (1972, Ideal School Supply). In her retirement, Given is a GMU Associate Professor Emerita of Special Education and Faculty Affiliate at Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

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Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at and all back issues of the Newsletter at