Interesting news from the phrenology ward

Today in a psychotherapy session I was discussing my problems with relationships, and more specifically my lack of intimate relationships. The working theory is that my own emotional life is too intense to communicate to others and that I shut them out in ways I’m not consciously able to control, mostly nonverbal.

This is particularly true if I have an attraction to someone, because my feeling of attraction is tightly coupled with unacceptably strong fear, shame, and self-hatred so that I become exceptionally false and not “present”.

Okay, interesting theory. But what’s the mechanism here? One theory is that the problem lies in the 10th cranial nerve. This is the vagus nerve, which goes to both the gut and the lungs from the brain. The “polyvagal theory” holds that separate branches of the vagus nerve, when stimulated, produce strong and opposed feelings: either you feel very safe, or not at all safe.

This has implications for a number of problems, including some autistic spectrum disorders, PTSD, panic attacks, and social adjustment problems. If the two systems become, as my therapist puts it, “overcoupled”, then it can be impossible to make a serious connection with someone without being overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions. The result is a kind of neural shutdown, which makes people like me seem distant or standoffish when we’re feeling exactly the opposite.

Stephen Polger, the originator of the polyvagal theory, has had some promising results at the University of Illinois treating autism with sound. There are also some suggestions and tips for dealing with these problems in this interview with Polger, which is intended for a lay audience. The other information I’ve found about this so far has been much more technical.

In my own case, since I am not autistic, PTSD, or suffering from panic attacks, the goal is to get the neural function more normal through a combination of neurofeedback, EMDR, somatic therapy, and medication. It’s kind of a science project though, since some of these ideas are very new and raw and will undoubtedly be further refined later.

16 thoughts on “Interesting news from the phrenology ward

    1. Thanks, but… There’s something rather spectacularly wrong. Trust me.
      Also I am doing some behavioral stuff but it’s difficult for reasons I won’t go into here.


      1. I understand what you’re saying. I think maybe what I’ve failed to communicate is the degree to which emotion overload like this is just an overwhelming physiological phenomenon.
        Anyway I didn’t post this to have a thing about my own problems as much as I did to point out the research ideas.


  1. Treating autism with sound? I heard something-or-other the other day; it was a sound-based hypnosis sort of thing. One sound was supposed to make you relaxed/calm, but not sleepy. Another was supposed to do give you good dreams. They all sounded like someone playing various tones of white noise through various processors. Also, they all started giving me headaches.
    To me, it all sounded like fingernails on chalkboards. It also seemed like quackery. Admittedly, the sounds that I heard were probably not created by a PhD, but someone more toward the Alex Chiu end of the scale.


    1. I don’t know Porges’ success rate. It’s investigational, etc. However he’s a real professor and not a crank, so if it doesn’t work we’ll hear about it too.


  2. It continually amazes me how complete our ignorance is about how any of this stuff works. Of course, I wish you didn’t have to be out there on the frontiers of this stuff reporting in… unless… unless…
    is this just another cheap ploy to get me to tickle your vagus?
    Because I won’t be fooled again.


  3. Thanks for sharing this information. I am fascinated by the human mind and how our environment since birth has shaped us into who we are. I have panic disorder and have had it since childhood – there are many different theories as to why and it basically represents many pieces of a puzzle because there isn’t just one explanation. I have been on medication for eighteen years which works excellently in my world, though I know others have been successful in managing without. Until I wake up with a limb growing out the back of my head, I’m not messing with what works consistently.
    Keep us all posted


  4. There’s a paper just out that seems to say that the old ‘chemical imbalance’ model of depression is wrong – it’s a fault with neuronal structure, and that the seritonin reuptake inhibition provoked by SSRI drugs is actually a mechanism to trigger stem cells in the hyppocampus and in other parts of the brain to grew new neurons, and for existing neurons to generate new axons. The “weakness” may be literal – a poverty of connections and neural growth in areas that regulate mood.


  5. A bit more than midway through the article, there’s an image on the right with writing on it that can’t be read. Do you think there might be a way to recover that information?


    1. Aside from getting a newsstand copy of the magazine or contacting them for the issue, probably not. Looks like someone resized the magazine illustration without thinking.


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