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Polyvagal theory and the empathy bypass

One of the joys of running the Diploma is meeting a group of like-minded people, getting to know each other and observing how relationships form.

Relationships are important. We are social beings. The human brain is a social organ. Empathy is central to relationships. Theory of mind means we can put ourselves in the shoes of the other, feel their feelings and see through their eyes.

On the Diploma, we watch an old recording of Carl Rogers counselling and man on anger. It's a rare film and not one you can access on you Tube.

One thing that shines through as you observe Rogers is how central empathy is to his work. Empathy is one of the person-centred core conditions for a therapeutic alliance. It's something we totally accept now but it wasn't always so.

Rogers was an innovator of what he termed ‘here and now therapy’. He was greatly inspired in this by the work of Otto Rank. Rank was once a central figure in Freud's analytical circle but became disillusioned with his oedipal obsession and the focus of psychoanalysis on the past.

Here and now therapy would focus instead on being fully present, and offering congruence, non-judgement and empathy to build a relationship and create a holding space where the client felt safe enough to explore their thoughts and feelings.

Polyvagal theory now offers an additional explanation for the effectiveness of the therapeutic alliance and how one human brain can connect with another.

The ventral vagal nerve is connected to the facial areas associated with communication, such as the eyes, mouth and ears. It is the most recently evolved branch of the autonomic nervous system and developed as human beings began to group together to form tribes and family units. Communication, both verbal and non-verbal now became essential for bond-forming and for working together.

Brain imaging confirms that information from our environment enters the right emotional brain hemisphere first. The brain checks out whether it is safe or whether it needs to engage fight or flight.

If it does feel safe, the incoming information travels across the corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres. It now engages the neo-cortex or rational left hemisphere where thought and reason process the data.

This milli-second of internal triage generally occurs outside of our consciousness.

If the environment feels safe, the ventral vagal system is in the driver’s seat and the brain tells the heart to remain calm. But if we sense a threat, whether real or imaginary, the older fight or flight system becomes switched on. Intense threat can even result in a brainstem response; freeze, shut down or death.

There are many ways to override our innate human empathy.

The social psychopath feels little if no empathy, for another human being. It's a brain wiring issue. The narcissist is so focused on ‘The self’ and their own needs that they see little point in engaging their empathic circuitry.

Polyvagal theory now informs us that, when we feel unsafe in our environment or in the presence of another, the older autonomic nervous system will produce more instinctive reaction that comes from the older part of the brain that perceives the world in a polarised, black or white, fight or flight mode.

In that mode, it's easy to see how empathy would be switched off, another explanation for how the hand that feeds can also be the hand that kills.


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