The Origins of Compassion: A Phylogenetic Perspective

Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. Translational Research in Neural Medicine Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Theme
1.  The neural origin for compassion is uniquely mammalian and dependent on the phylogenetic changes in the ANS from reptiles to mammals. Compassion is neurophysiologically incompatible with judgmental, evaluative, and defensive behaviors and feelings that recruit phylogenetically older neural circuits regulating autonomic function. The effectiveness of mediation, listening, chant, posture, and breath on fostering mental states and health is due to a common phylogenetic change in the neural regulation of the ANS.
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

2. 

3. 

Unique Mammalian Modifications
1.  Diaphragm – separates the heart and lungs from subdiaphragmatic organs 2.  Two vagal circuits 1.  Ancient unmyelinated vagus regulates gut and subdiaphragmatic organs 2.  Mammalian myelinated vagus regulates supradiaphragmatic organs (lung and heart). 3.  Myelinated baroreceptors 4.  Detached middle ear bones 5.  Adrenal with separate blood supply from the kidney 6.  Adrenocortical cells clustered as a cortex of the adrenal 7.  Oxytocin and vasopressin as separate neuropeptides with specialized receptors
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Unique Mammalian Modifications
Bi-directional interactions among brainstem source nuclei of the myelinated vagus and several cranial nerves that regulate the striated muscles of the face and head result in a faceheart connection with portals that regulate state.

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Emergent Portals
Face – heart connection
•  Voice – heart connection (chants) •  Listening – heart connection (music) •  Breath – heart connection (pranayama)

Posture-heart connection
(Dance and other movements)

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Compassion requires turning off defenses
•  How we feel determines whether we become friends, lovers, or enemies. •  Our feelings are dependent on our physiological state (autonomic nervous system). •  Defense turns off the mammalian innovations of the ANS and the face-heart connection. •  Compassion requires turning off biobehavioral defense systems in the dyad to enable both the compassionate individual the other to feel safe to be proximal, and to enable physical contact.
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Polyvagal Theory
The Polyvagal Theory explains the functional relevance of the mammalian modifications of the ANS and emphasizes the adaptive consequences of detecting risk (i.e., safety, danger, or life threat) on physiological state, social behavior, psychological experience (including compassion), and health.

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

The Polyvagal Theory
1.  Evolution provides an organizing principle to understand neural regulation of the human autonomic nervous system as an enabler of positive social behavior. 2.  Three neural circuits form a phylogeneticallyordered response hierarchy that regulate behavioral and physiological adaptation to safe, dangerous, and life threatening environments. 3.  Neuroception of danger or safety or life threat trigger these adaptive neural circuits.
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

The Quest for Safety:
Emergent Properties of Physiological State
Environment
outside the body inside the body

Nervous System
Neuroception

Safety
Spontaneously engages others
eye contact, facial expression, prosody supports visceral homeostasis

Danger

Life threat
Defensive strategies
death feigning/shutdown (immobilization)

Defensive strategies
fight/flight behaviors (mobilization)
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Phylogenetic Organization of the ANS: The Polyvagal Theory
head

limbs

viscera trunk

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Phylogenetic Organization of the ANS: The Polyvagal Theory
head

old vagus

limbs

viscera trunk

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Immobilization With Fear:

Vasovagal Syncope

Phylogenetic Organization of the ANS: The Polyvagal Theory
head

limbs

viscera trunk

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Phylogenetic Organization of the ANS: The Polyvagal Theory
Corticospinal Pathways

Sympathetic Nervous System

head

limbs

viscera trunk

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Mobilization: Flight Behaviors

Mobilization: Fight Behaviors

Phylogenetic Organization of the ANS: The Polyvagal Theory
head

limbs

viscera trunk

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Phylogenetic Organization of the ANS: The Polyvagal Theory
Corticobulbar pathways head

new vagus

limbs

viscera trunk

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Social Engagement

©  Jeff Hunter/ The Image Bank

A Neural Love Code:
The Role of Social Engagement

People Need People:
A Biological Basis for Social Behavior Regulators of physiology are embedded in relationships
Myron Hofer, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons

Mammalian Interactions:
Regulators of physiology are embedded in relationships

Mammalian Interactions:
Regulators of physiology are embedded in relationships

A Neural Love Code: Phase I
The importance of face-to-face interactions

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Deconstructing the Mammalian Social Engagement System
cortex brainstem
Muscles of Mastication Middle Ear Muscles Facial Muscles Larynx Pharynx Heart

Cranial Nerves V,VII,IX,X,XI

Head Turning

Bronchi

environment
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Immobilization Without Fear

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Immobilization Without Fear

Immobilization Without Fear

Immobilization Without Fear

Immobilization: Without Fear

Immobilization Without Fear

Immobilization Without Fear

Immobilization Without Fear

A Neural Love Code: Phase II
The importance of physical contact while immobilizing without fear

Immobilization without fear, can only occur following the establishment of safety via the social engagement system. Without feeling safe, immobilization triggers life threat experiences.

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Social engagement and immobilization without fear are features of compassion and compassionate behaviors.

Bodily feelings influence our awareness of others and either potentiate spontaneous social engagement behaviors and feelings of compassion or displace spontaneous social behaviors and feelings of compassion with defensive reactions and judgmental feelings.
Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges

Summary
Compassion is a manifestation of our biological need to engage and to bond with others. Compassion is a component of our biological quest for safety in proximity of another.

Copyright © 2012 Stephen W. Porges