Warning: Neuroscience Nerdout

Warning: this blog is in the learning zone. If what I say is inaccurate, please help me learn. This is a rough draft. I love this information and am working to make sense of it in my own context, so rather than creating judgement – help me learn.

I am over-the-moon excited!! I have found the neuroscience to back up the work I have been doing with Sustainable Teaching and feel like it is the thing that will fully legitimize our work. Please forgive me while I completely geek out in this moment.

In schools we live out and we teach our students the classic western ideal that we gained from Jean Paul Sartre: I think, therefore I am.

Sustainable Teaching and PolyVagal Theory teaches us that is only part of the story; in fact, we need to revise it to: I feel it in my body, therefore I am. It is not enough for teacher to continue to live from the neck up, to primarily and only cognate. This process of ignoring and pushing aside what we feel in our bodies is what is causing our teachers to burn out, and it is creating dis-connection and dis-ease in our schools.

Working in schools, we are often conditioned to believe that everything is a crisis. Students need immediate feedback on their performance. Parents need immediate phone call returns. Parents need immediate email returns. Struggling students need our immediate attention. Behaviors must be mitigated. Academic struggle must be mitigated. And don’t even get me started about the four boys in the front of the room who must tell me the play-by-play in their video game last night – for I know if I don’t feign interest, I’ll lose their attention. IT IS ALL SO IMPORTANT!

But if everything is a crisis, if everything is important than nothing is truly important. If I am working from a state of crisis, if my sympathetic nervous system is continuously switch on and I have nothing to bring it down, I will get sick. It works like this: when we go into a sympathetic state (fight, flightier, or appease), our bodies flush hormones into our organs to allow us to mobilize. If we don’t find a way to physically work these hormones out of our organs, we will become physically sick. The more we have this response, the more we must work to flush our systems.

If we can work to bring ourselves into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) more often we can train our bodies to react in less detrimental ways. This is where Vagal Tone and our Vagus Nerve come into play (yes, I have a massive crush on the Vagus nerve, it is true).

When we have a high Vagal Tone, we create what is called Vagal Flexibility – the ability to balance ourselves appropriately between sympathetic and parasympathetic responses to situations.

And how do we create this balance?

It’s actually quite simple when you understand the mechanics. The Vagus Nerve is fibrous – think of fiber optic cables – and pulls from different parts of the brain into the brain stem and down the torso and then tendrils out into different organs. So when you are in a situation and “feel it in your gut” it is the Vagus Nerve doing it’s work to warn you, or to mobilize you towards excitement. When mama says to trust your intuition it is the Vagus Nerve at work creating what is called neuroception – the idea that we know in our bodies about something, we haven’t put words to it, but we feel it. Once we put words to it, we have integrated perception – the cognition behind neuroception.

The problem is that when we live from the neck up, like we tend to do in schools, we lose our ability to trust this neuroception – we’ve ignored it for so long, pushed it under, etc that it has lost it’s power. So we must work to recover it, to cultivate it so that we can create stronger flexibility between sympathetic and parasympathetic states so that we are not overreacting when the four boys in the front row of our classroom who want to share all about their video games.

Breath is power.

The fastest and easiest way to cultivate Vagal Flexibility is through the breath. Activating the Vagus Nerve is as simple as taking some low and slow breaths focusing on the exhale – this act alone works to bring your parasympathetic system online. This act creates space between yourself and the incident you are working with. It brings your prefrontal cortex back online in stressful situations. Essentially, it allows you to create appropriate responses to stressors.

Stephen Porges