The Nervous System: The Most Important Ally Social Justice Needs

Reading Stephen Porges on the Polyvagal Theory has strangely converged on some critical thinking I’ve been doing regarding social justice, difficult conversations, and change.

I like to question.

I like to think.

I like to grow.

It’s just part of who I am.

In each of my classes, my professors had to face the realization that I was going to pick things apart. Rarely was there a day when I didn’t have my hand high up in the air like a grad-school Hermione Granger.

It’s how I learn.

I take the idea presented to me, break it down, challenge it according to previous knowledge and experience, and figure out how to integrate it. Even when I’m not taking classes, I will seek out books, articles, and videos that challenge my thinking and stretch my comfort zone.

Those professors who could appreciate and embrace my need to question found me an engaged and enthusiastic student.

But even as someone who values critical thinking and open-mindedness, I have limits. If I feel trapped into a conversation and unable to exit, if I’m not free to question all sides of the issue, or if I feel demeaned or forced to change, one of two things will happen.

I will shut down and refuse to engage.

OR

I will become actively suspicious, defensive, and potentially hostile.

Polyvagal Theory helps me understand why that happens. It’s not a function of being stubborn or hard-headed or unwilling to consider someone else’s perspective—it’s a function of a nervous system designed for survival.

When learning about the autonomic nervous system in the past, I got the impression that arousal meant fight/flight (the sympathetic nervous system engaged) whereas the opposite was the parasympathetic nervous system promoting rest and peace.

What Porges brings out is that safety isn’t about the lack of arousal. Rather, arousal also happens within the context of social engagement, balanced by the parasympathetic nervous system.

Creativity, exploration, and play all require a certain amount of arousal…but the arousal doesn’t signal the body to danger when the social engagement system is on and tuned into the smiles, melodic vocals, and eye contact of others that tells our nervous system that they aren’t a threat.

In other words, the difference between a playful wrestling match and an actual fight has to do with cues that our nervous system receives from others and sends  to others that “this is play, not war.”

If our nervous system receives cues of aggression or doesn’t receive cues of safety from the person with whom we are engaging, it is likely to switch into a fight/flight or shut-down mode without our conscious choice or control.

Which means that our creativity, open-mindedness, and willingness to explore will suddenly dramatically reduce or cease altogether.

Woah! Right?!

I mean, it makes sense when I think about my own experience. I can’t consider alternative points of view or think about creative solutions to a problem if I’m high into my mobilization energy or have disconnected from my myself because I’ve been overwhelmed.

But how often do we think about that when we approach a difficult conversation with someone else?

Reading about the nervous system has led me to completely reconsider certain concepts that seem taken for granted in social justice circles. Not that I hadn’t been rethinking those on my own. I’ve been considering the toxicity of the shame-culture and call-out culture with which I’ve become deeply disillusioned for quite some time.

But learning about the nervous system takes this thinking to a whole new level. I’ve gone from wondering if there’s a better approach to realizing that in many ways we have set ourselves up for failure as advocates if we aren’t paying attention to how the nervous system works.

Our conversations with those with whom we disagree are often riddled with tension, aggression, anger, and distrust…yet we want people to be willing to critically think, empathically engage with us, and be open to change—things which neither we nor they are probably capable of given the physiological state induced by the cues present in the conversation!

It makes me curious. What would social justice look like if we approached it from a neurophysiological standpoint?

Stay tuned for more thoughts on this topic!

 

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