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Mediation – Engaging the Rhythm of Polyvagal Regulation

What do garden snails, lizards and humans all have in common? Beings, from the simple no brain, to the complex human brain and every life form in-between, all have the survival instinct, the capacity to take in and absorb what will continue life, as well as expelling and rejecting cell waste. The knowing of what, when, where and how of survival has been linked to the inbuilt sense of perception, the capacity to take in and process information.  Perspective, the way we see something, make sense of an experience or an object, is largely based on our perception, how we intuitively interpret things.

Survival, what to move close to and include and what to move away from and dispel, however is not the full story, we are told. Modern biologist Richard Prum, has been researching birds and in the process has uncovered the survival instinct myth. The myth that sees competition as the most instinctive characteristic of life was only half of what Charles Darwin wrote and spoke about in regards to the origin of species. The other half of our life instinct is an aesthetic instinct, a perception of preference, an instinct of beauty. The ‘taste for the beautiful’ is as distinctive as the need to survive.[1]One of the attributes of the beauty instinct is the inbuilt sense of respect for the other.

All of life, including the snail has an aesthetic instinct towards mating. Some animals including birds have a very complex aesthetic instinct, the male Australian Bower bird go to a great deal of effort to create beautiful aesthetic creations to attract a mate. Other beings, such as the garden snail, will merely choose by preference based on an inherent sensory choice, who to mate with and who to reject.

So what can we learn from this? Well it turns out that beauty is one of our inherent instincts along with safety, and it is within our natural instincts to gravitate towards both survival and beauty at our core. Not just for humans to gravitate towards others but for others, to gravitate towards us.

The term perception, which includes interpretation, doesn’t work for what Stephen Porges, a researcher and professor in Behavioural Neuroscience, says lies at the foundation of life’s preferences, both survival and beauty. Stephen Porges created the term ‘neuroception’ and now other psychologists are using this term to better explain the biological reality that instinctively draws us close or shifts our gaze from one moment to the next. Neuroception is our body’s radar, our body’s inbuilt sensory system that unlike perception which includes thought process, is wholly a body reaction. Neuroception is our neurons reaction to stimuli.

The signals from our environment as well as within our mind/body are automatically processed within our autonomic nervous system. In the past this was understood to have a two way action, the parasympathetic pathway to slow down our heart beats, breathing and actions, and our sympathetic pathway that would move things quickly including our actions bypassing reflective thinking. Snails and lizards have simpler versions; it is basic instincts in operation. Stephen Porges showed that there are actually three pathways that operate in human beings functioning via the vagus nerve, the trunk and branches of the autonomic nervous system. This is called the Polyvagal Theory.

Through the understanding of Polyvagal Theory we see that life is wired for connection, through survival and through beauty. All of life is included here, though many animals, insects, fish, minerals and plants use much simpler growth and connection pathways.

Deb Dana, a clinical psychologist is a leading trainer in Polyvagal Theory, in her recent book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Engaging the rhythm of regulation, Deb Dana transforms the neuroscience of polyvagal theory into an easy to grasp conceptual map.

“Neuroception sends us messages of safety; that we are where we belong, that we are home. Our minds may disagree with those messages and want something else to be true. We can try to talk ourselves in or out of something, but our autonomic nervous system, by way of neuroception, has the last word. “ [2] 

Deb Dana calls the Polyvagal Theory, an ‘anatomy of our autonomic surveillance system, pursuing safety while remaining alert for danger.’[3]The home, the heart, the wellbeing of life, is connection. This is what Polyvagal Theory brings to us. Our body and as it turns out, life forms in general are all designed for connection, that is the point of beauty, to bathe in connection. The autonomic surveillance system, our tuning fork, is influenced by our social relationships and our environment. 

‘Everyday experiences are automatically received and read through the process of neuroception as safe, dangerous or life threatening. This initiates a regulating response, activating either an adaptive survival state or social engagement.[4]

Deb Dana’s metaphor of a ladder map allows us to see how the surveillance system works.  At the top of the ladder, ventral vagal state, is connection, social engagement, the sense of beauty in being. Here our parasympathetic system connects to beauty, to calm, to safety. More common to most of us in the city is our mobilised middle range of activation, our sympathetic fight or flight protection mode of operating. At this step in our ladder, the mid-range, our body without any direction from our thinking brain, disconnects from safety to protection and defence. We move into the space our neuroception takes us. The rupture from connection, from a sense of safety could come from inside us or signals coming from our environment, or others. The survival mode is turned on and connection is turned off.  This is where many of us spend most of our time – disconnected from our self, from others and from the beauty of life. If we are further triggered we can collapse and find ourselves at the bottom of the ladder, immobilized, frozen, unable to move or access our energy, down in the dumps at the dorsal vagal state.

                   “ If the signals are of safety, the autonomic nervous system calms, connects and co-regulates, supporting active engagement. If however, ..autonomic signals of unsafety or only intermittent signals of safety are experienced, the neuroception, sensing the need for protection, initiates a move away from connection, out of engagement, and into a survival response.”[5]

Movement is a key feature of the Polyvagal Theory. At the top of the ladder state, movement can be savoured, can be still, can be slow. At the mid-range threat and protect state, movement can be fast, running, activating adrenal, whilst in the low range of dorsal vagal state, activation is missing, the energy has collapsed, frozen. We may become so familiar with a state that the known becomes normalised. It is not unusual to move between states, and our very choice of activities and words can draw us in and out of states. Regulation happens when there is a rupture in connection, to safety, and then a return to a safe space. Dysregulation occurs when there is no return, the disconnection is sustained. Deb Dana has subtitled her book on Polyvagal Theory Engaging the rhythm of regulation, emphasising the work of life is bringing in the rhythm of regulation.

It is easy now to see how mediation is designed for the application of engaging the rhythm of regulation.  We must begin our meetings with hospitality, creating a safe space to invite people in. The circle of talks becomes part of our social rhythm of respecting each voice, our slow, silence of witnessing welcomes us to our home base, to connection. The mediator has the role and responsibility of guiding everyone to feel safe, without which our autonomic surveillance system will naturally take us to a closed shop a real sense of disengagement.

We can see these states in nature, the lizard who stops, frozen in time, then after regulating itself, sensing no real danger or threat, will then meander its way across a path. Even the insects almost impossible to see with the naked eye, but their movements that create the leaf to shake, will stop, immobilized with fear when being noticed, and when it no longer is fearful for its life, will once again continue its movement.

For each of us, our life’s journey is unique. Trauma, abandonment and cravings, all impact on our rhythm of regulation. Safety lies at our very core and in many cases inhibiting connection and preventing engagement with beauty. Deb Dana uses the arc type of Goldilocks to illuminate the testing of just right. Our surveillance system automatically tunes itself out of connection and with adjustments to conditioning, can find the just right connection again.

Co-regulation is the inner realm of connection. The environment impacts on itself, we are all impacting on each other. When you smile at me, authentically pleased to see me, my surveillance system picks up the safety and we have co-regulated. This happens automatically. In nature our neuroception picks up on the safety of life. Research is now revealing what our mediator forefathers told us. Go to the balcony, look out over the savanna, spend some time in the woods, take a turn around the garden, take a walk.

These strategies for thinking were part of our wisdom heritage, unfortunately with urbanisation, life for many is seen within a building within confined spaces of purpose  and so these wisdom messages have become lost or rather seen as metaphors rather than real examples of process guidance. Our inbuilt surveillance system with the support of a mediator, can invite us again and again to be at the top of our ladder, to bathe in beauty and connectedness.  Nature, the real birds, trees and wildlife, including the lizards and snails, can support our capacity to turn our threat system off, and through co-regulation, the sense of the natural environment as well as the mediators soothing, compassionate accompaniment, can redirect us to bathe in the beauty of connection.


[1] Richard Prum   Aesthetic evolution by mate choice: Darwin’s really dangerous idea

[2] Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation 2018 Norton p43

[3] Deb Dana ibid p78

[4] Deb Dana ibid p111

[5] Deb Dana Ibid p111


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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