The polyvagal theory

Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. is an honors university scientist, at Indiana University. There he founded and directs the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. He is a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland.

In 1994, he published Polyvagal Theory, a theory linking the development of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and demonstrating the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. 

He is the creatorof a music-based intervention, the Safe and Sound Protocol ™,which is currently used by more than 1400 therapists to improve spontaneous social engagement, reduce auditory sensitivity, improve language processing and self-regulation.

He founded the Polyvagal Institute. The Polyvagal Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a new paradigm for health and well-being.

Polyvagal theory is the basis of my voice work. Already many years ago I devoted myself to the question of how our first bonding and contact experiences affect our voice. To this end, I pursued the question of the effects of World War 2 on subsequent generations, especially on art, speech and singing. How is our language shaped and where do we receive our first vocal training?

The deeper I delved into polyvagal theory, the more I discovered a symbiotic connection between the autonomic nervous system and the voice. I found explanations here when singers told me they couldn’t access their voice and felt they were singing against glass walls. At the same time, I discovered that the voice itself carries the potential to connect or regulate us back, because the important newly discovered ventral vagus nerve, supplies the entire vocal apparatus.

I wondered why singers nevertheless have a dysregulated nervous system and no access to their voice and its potential, even though singing activates the ventral vagus and thus should regulate the autonomic nervous system. I found answers not only in the importance of hearing or the middle ear and inner ear, but in the musculature and muscle systems. This brought me to Lisbeth Marcher, who developed Bodynamic. The basis of her research was the work of Wilhelm Reich, which she further developed and specified. Reich discovered bracing, Lisbeth Marcher found this bracing in the musculature and fascia tissue. She found that our first bonding and contact experiences have a major impact on our musculature. She studied 126 muscles, classifying them into muscle systems. She found that muscles respond either hypertonic (too much tension) or hypotonic (too little tension) to the experiences we have had. She teaches muscle reading and assigns muscle systems to different phases of life. This involves 7 life phases that last until the age of 14.

For my research, it showed especially a great importance of the first two life phases, which have an elementary influence on our hearing and voice. One can consider these life phases as basic phases, which have a very strong influence on our life. From this it followed that the hearing or the muscles of the middle ear have an important function when it comes to getting in touch with ourselves. They are the feedback loop to our I / Self. The Bodynamic also says ego, which is often banished in spirituality, but is essential for our healthy development. Here we already come to the core problem of our society or autonomic nervous system. If we have not felt safe and welcome already in our first phase of life, the Bodynamic says, existence phase, then survival strategies begin very early in our life. The existence phase begins in the 2nd trimester of pregnancy and lasts until the 3rd month. This means that many people have never experienced safety in their lives and this is central to the regulation of the autonomic nervous system. The mother’s voice plays a central role in this. It also means that many people have never experienced a regulated nervous system and since they don’t know this state any other way, it is a normal state that gets little attention because you don’t even know what it is like to have a regulated nervous system.

Fear of performing, not being able to hear properly, fear of failure, blocked voice, hoarseness, little flexibility of the larynx,… are all effects of a dysregulated nervous system on the muscles (larynx muscles), the soul and the spirit. Especially in the existence phase we feel (if everything went well) connected with us, perceive our body as home. It is the AllOne, the secure BEING, which characterizes this phase and for which we long throughout our lives. In this phase, especially the middle ear is formed and if we have not had the experience of security and welcome, then this has a corresponding effect on our middle ear muscles. This does not only affect our HEARING, but also the contact to ourselves. This is then interrupted. I therefore assign the existence phase to the middle ear, to the HEARING.

The second important phase is the need phase. It starts from the 1st month until we are 1.5 years old. Here it is about the individual, about the I and YOU, about boundaries and about the skin, because here normally skin boundaries are formed. The skin binds to the nervous system. It is also an important organ of hearing. This phase is about satisfying my needs, about contact with our mother or caregiver. This is the phase of voice, of self-expression. This phase has a strong influence on our laryngeal muscles. This phase belongs to BEING human. All our feelings, thoughts, visions, potentials, just our ME, are located here. Our culture prevents the formation or development of the “I”. This is also the case in vocal pedagogy, because less attention is paid to the individual and authentic voice sound, but rather to the adaptation of a common ideal of beauty. This is where the adaptation to our environment and its expectations begins. One could also say, the foreign determination or the pushing away of the own self or self-expression. Thus we lose the access to our voice. With this, ear (hearing) and voice also separate and the resonance to ourselves is interrupted.

The feedback between the middle ear and the muscles of the larynx regulates our entire autonomic nervous system. By means of altered hearing, we can balance the musculature of the larynx. Cornelius Reid, with his extraordinary vocal pedagogy, has worked very close to regulating the autonomic nervous system without probably doing so consciously. However, he brought the two muscle systems of the larynx into balance, as well as the pharyngeal muscles. For him, functional LISTENING was something central. He said that an authentic voice is only possible when the muscle systems are balanced and cooperate with each other again. Everything else reflects conditioning and compensation patterns that show up in the musculature. For him, individual voice and self-empowerment, that is, control over a voluntary system, was also important. This is achieved by training the musculature. His important insights and extraordinary vocal pedagogy are carried on by his wife Donna Reid, as he passed away in 2008. She is active internationally as a vocal pedagogue and I am very happy that we are in exchange and learn and research together.

This means that by balancing the laryngeal musculature, the middle ear musculature with the involvement of the inner ear, we can not only regulate our autonomic nervous system, but also balance the entire musculature with the fascial tissue of the whole body. This means letting go of old conditioning and survival strategies, as well as freeing the voice and our true self. For this, the chest voice and the falsetto must be trained separately.

The autonomic nervous system
This diagram shows quite well that there are 3 strands of the nervous system. Until the discovery of Stephen Porge’s polyvagal theory, only 2 strands were assumed. The vagus nerve, which belongs to the parasympathetic system and is assigned to relaxation, and the sympathetic nerve, which is responsible for tension. The sensational discovery of another strand of the parasympathetic nervous system, was an evolutionary development of the autonomic nervous system. The ventral vagus nerve is the nerve of safety, communication, relationship, empathy, in other words, everything that has to do with contact and bonding. So if we have not experienced security in our lives, the ventral vagus is not active and also loses its protective myelin layer. What is not needed degrades. However, this layer is important for feeling safe and for passing on information. It is important to know that 80% of what happens in the body is transmitted to the brain via the vagus nerve, and only 20% of the brain’s information reaches the body.

If the myelin layer is missing, this information can no longer be transmitted adequately. But it also shows the importance of our body and that mental concepts are not enough. That is why working on the musculature is also so important in order to be able to achieve far-reaching and lasting changes. So, as soon as we work with the muscles of the middle ear and larynx, we activate and energize the ventral vagus nerve and the myelin layer begins to grow. We only need 33% of this for our nervous system to regulate itself so that we notice a noticeable and lasting change.

The state of our autonomic nervous system is reflected in our muscles. When the dorsal vagus nerve is predominantly active and we are in a dead reflex mode (torpor), it has a slackening effect on the muscles. When the sympathetic nerve is more active, we are more in fight, flight mode and have overly tense, overly tight muscles. The ventral vagus nerve can balance these extremes through its activation. It is like a tuning fork that tunes us back to our original frequency.

The two important muscles in the middle ear
There are two very crucial muscles for the middle ear that have a strong influence on how we can hear ourselves and whether we can hear and filter out voices. Depending on how our phase of existence has gone, these muscles are either too slack or too tight. Usually, the stapedius muscle is too slack and therefore cannot properly stretch the eardrum. It is responsible for frequency. 

The tenor tympani muscle is concerned with sound transmission to the inner ear. So it is responsible for volume. Both muscles are supplied by the ventral vagus nerve. 

The Safe and Sound Protocol, developed by Stephen Porges, gets the stapedius muscle to contract again and bring the eardrum back into proper tension. This not only has an effect on HEARING, but also on the autonomic nervous system. 

Image source:

The cricothyroid and arytaenoid muscle systems.
There is a counterpart in the laryngeal musculature to the two important muscles of the middle ear.

This means that the stapedius muscle, which is responsible for frequency, belongs to the cricothyroid or ring-shield corpuscle muscle system. The cricothyroid muscle system (external muscle system) is responsible for pitch. This is how we form the falsetto.

The tensor tympani muscle is responsible for volume and belongs to the arytaenoid muscle system, which is also responsible for volume. With the arytaenoid muscle system (internal muscle system) we work on the chest voice.

There would be a lot more to say, also concerning the different brain areas and what neuroception means.

For those interested in these exciting topics and research, I recommend my voice training program, day workshops on polyvagal theory and also continuing education. It is a very different approach to voice training and corresponds to a new paradigm. It is a holistic approach that brings together many disciplines and makes the art again what it has always been. Being human, as well as being this divine spark in which the beauty and creativity of this incredible creation is reflected.

This mystery of this creation, is ourselves. Our body is embodied creation, a marvel. I believe that in the feedback between ear and voice, not only is our voice freed, but we remember who we really are. Divine, miraculous beings inhabiting a body.

The original purpose of the arts has always been to express the divine spark.