The Polyvagal Theory


Since Misophonia is a new disorder, research may go several different ways. Dr. Stephen Porges, who proposed “the Polyvagal Theory”, has been studying the relationship between sounds and our reactions to them. Along-side the IMRN, Dr. Porges has been conducting research that is influenced by Misophonia.

The Polyvagal Theory (gr. ‘polus’, “‘many’” + ‘vagal’, “‘Vagus Nerve'”) was proposed and developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The theory specifies two functionally distinct branches of the vagus, or tenth cranial nerve. The branches of the vagal nerve serve different evolutionary stress responses in mammals: the more primitive branch elicits immobilization behaviors (e.g., feigning death), whereas the more evolved branch is linked to social communication and self-soothing behaviors. These functions follow a phylogenetic hierarchy, where the most primitive systems are activated only when the more evolved structures fail. These neural pathways regulate autonomic state and the expression of emotional and social behavior. Thus, according to this theory, physiological state dictates the range of behavior and psychological experience.

The Polyvagal Theory introduced a new perspective relating autonomic function to behavior that included an appreciation of autonomic nervous system as a “system,” the identification of neural circuits involved in the regulation of autonomic state, and an interpretation of autonomic reactivity as adaptive within the context of the phylogeny of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system. The paper has two objectives: First, to provide an explicit statement of the theory; and second, to introduce the features of a polyvagal perspective. The polyvagal perspective emphasizes how an understanding of neurophysiological mechanisms and phylogenetic shifts in neural regulation, leads to different questions, paradigms, explanations, and conclusions regarding autonomic function in biobehavioral processes than peripheral models. Foremost, the polyvagal perspective emphasizes the importance of phylogenetic changes in the neural structures regulating the autonomic nervous system and how these phylogenetic shifts provide insights into the adaptive function and the neural regulation of the two vagal systems.