Polyvagal theory and the neurobiology of connection, John Quincy Adams on impostor syndrome, a tender vintage Japanese meditation on love and loss

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The Marginalian

Welcome Hello Reader! This is the weekly email digest of The Marginalian by Maria Popova. If you missed last week's edition — Darwin on the spirituality of wonder, Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss, the eclipse that went extinct — you can catch up right here. And if my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation — for seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: I appreciate you more than you know.

Polyvagal Theory and the Neurobiology of Connection: The Science of Rupture, Repair, and Reciprocity

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings — the first great gauntlet thrown at the Cartesian dualism of body versus mind. In the century and a half since, we have come to see how the body and the mind converge in the healing of trauma; we have come to see consciousness itself as a full-body phenomenon.

Beyond the brain, no portion of the body shapes our mental and emotional landscape more profoundly than the tenth cranial nerve — the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system that unconsciously governs the inner workings of the body. Known as the vagus nerve — from the Latin for “wandering,” a root shared with vagabond and vague — it meanders from the brain to the gut, touching every organ along the way with its tendrils, controlling everything from our heart rate and digestion to our reflexes and moods.

One of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known drawings of the brain.

In James’s lifetime, it was believed that synaptic communication within the brain was electrical. But when neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal discovered a gap between neurons — a miniature abyss electricity could not cross — it became clear that something else must be transmitting the signals between neurons. In 1921, the German pharmacologist Otto Loewi confirmed the existence of these theorized chemical messengers by stimulating the vagus nerve of a frog and discovering in the secreted substance the first known neurotransmitter. Every thought, feeling, and mood that has ever swept across the sky of your mind was forecast by your neurotransmitters and executed by your vagus nerve.

A century after James, while working with premature babies, the psychiatrist Stephen Porges uncovered two distinct vagal pathways in the nervous system — the much older dorsal vagus, which evolved around 500 million years ago in a fish now extinct to regulate fear response and activate shutdown, and the ventral vagus, a uniquely mammalian development about 200 million old, controlling our capacity for connection and communication. This research became the foundation of polyvagal theory — the science of how the interplay of these two systems shapes our sense of safety and danger, shapes our attachment styles and relationship patterns, shapes our very ability to tolerate the risks of living necessary for being in love with life.

In the decades since, no one has championed polyvagal theory more ardently than the clinical psychologist Deb Dana. In her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (public library), written for therapists, she explores how trauma automates our adaptive responses in a survival story that puts the fear-based dorsal vagus in command to induce collapse and dissociation, and how we can rewire our neural pathways toward the emotional safety of the ventral vagal state, where our capacity for curiosity, connection, and change flourishes.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Dana writes:

Connectedness is a biological imperative, and at the top of the autonomic hierarchy is the ventral vagal pathway that supports feelings of safety and connection. The ventral vagus (sometimes called the “smart vagus” or “social vagus”) provides the neurobiological foundation for health, growth, and restoration. When the ventral vagus is active, our attention is toward connection. We seek opportunities for co-regulation. The ability to soothe and be soothed, to talk and listen, to offer and receive, to fluidly move in and out of connection is centered in this newest part of the autonomic nervous system. Reciprocity, the mutual ebb and flow that defines nourishing relationships, is a function of the ventral vagus. As a result of its myelinated pathways, the ventral vagus provides rapid and organized responses. In a ventral vagal state, we have access to a range of responses including calm, happy, meditative, engaged, attentive, active, interested, excited, passionate, alert, ready, relaxed, savoring, and joyful.

This biological need for co-regulation with others is not dissimilar to the concept of limbic revision — “the power to remodel the emotional parts of the people we love,” and to have our own emotional pathways remodeled by the people who love us. This is only possible in safe relationships, and it is the vagus system that governs our sense of safety.

Central to polyvagal theory is the distinction between conscious perception and what Porges termed neuroception — the conditioned way the autonomic nervous system responds from within the body, without our awareness, to cues of safety and danger in the outside world. Because our vagal pathways are shaped by our earliest experiences of co-regulation in the infant-parent dyad, ruptures in that co-regulation — whether by abuse or neglect — condition the dorsal vagus to become dominant and make a neuroception of danger the default response, storying reality away from safety, nowhere more perilously than in intimate relationships. Dana writes:

Co-regulation is at the heart of positive relationships… If we miss opportunities to co-regulate in childhood, we feel that loss in our adult relationships. Trauma, either in experiences of commission (acts of harm) or omission (absence of care), makes co-regulation dangerous and interrupts the development of our co-regulatory skills. Out of necessity, the autonomic nervous system is shaped to independently regulate. Clients will often say that they needed connection but there was no one in their life who was safe, so after a while they stopped looking. Through a polyvagal perspective, we know that although they stopped explicitly looking and found ways to navigate on their own, their autonomic nervous system never stopped needing, and longing for, co-regulation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf

Because we are physiologies first and psychologies second, but we are also storytelling and sensemaking creatures, our minds naturally create emotional narratives out of these unconscious vagal states — stories that, if we are not careful enough and conscious enough, may come to subsume reality. Dana observes:

The mind narrates what the nervous system knows. Story follows state.

Our early adaptive survival responses of trauma train the autonomic nervous system on a default neuroception of danger, replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection in a fear-based narrative. And yet these reflexes can be recalibrated by retraining our regulatory pathways.

Because the feeling of reciprocity is one of the most powerful regulators of the autonomic nervous system, a great deal of repair and rewiring can happen in relationships winged with true reciprocity. Dana writes:

Reciprocity is a connection between people that is created in the back-and-forth communication between two autonomic nervous systems. It is the experience of heartfelt listening and responding. We are nourished in experiences of reciprocity, feeling the ebb and flow, giving and receiving, attunement, and resonance.

Art from The Human Body, 1959.

But the great paradox is that if our earliest template of connection is marked by rupture and deficient co-regulation, our very notion of reciprocity may be warped, leading us to tolerate immense asymmetries of affection and attention, to mistake deeply imbalanced relationships for reciprocal. The grounds for optimism lie in the very real possibility of changing the template through safe and nourishing relationships — ones we may not so much choose at first, for trauma can taint our choices with unhealthy patterns, as chance into and only then choose to nurture. The payoff is a gradual transition from the dorsal vagal state into the ventral vagal, a gradual willingness to release the patterns of protection in favor of connection, allowing the kinds of relationships Adrienne Rich celebrated as ones “in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love.'”

Complement with the science of how emotion are made and how love rewires the brain, then revisit Toni Morrison on reclaiming the body as an instrument of joy, sanity, and self-love.

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Each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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Swan Sky: A Bittersweet Vintage Japanese Meditation on Love, Loss, and the Eternal Consolations of Belonging

To me, what makes the majestic migration of birds so moving is that it is a living spell against abandonment. No one is leaving and no one is being left in this unison of movement along a vector of common purpose. It is the only instance I know of a transition that is not a rupture but an affirmation of a bond — an immense family of beings magnetized together by unassailable belonging, governed by the elemental life-force pulsating beneath every longing for connection and communion.

And yet no spell against abandonment can ever protect us from the most terrifying and most certain of losses. This, in fact, is why the relationship rupture is so psychologically painful — every abandonment is a miniature of death.

Japanese artist and storyteller Keizaburō Tejima brings uncommon tenderness to this bittersweet inevitability of life in his 1988 book Swan Sky (public library) — a soulful addition to the best children’s books about making sense of loss, lensed through the migration of swans.

Partway in time and sensibility between Hasui Kawase and Nikki McClure, Tejima’s woodcuts rise from the page stark and sensitive as a child’s experience of change.

The story begins in a faraway lake, where the swans winter “until the wind is laced with the first warmth of spring.” Year after year, when that moment comes, they lift off as one immense V to soar together toward their summer home in the north, filling the sky with their ancient cries.

For as long as they can remember, this is what they have done.

But this particular spring, one of the young swans remains curled up on the water’s edge, unable to fly away with the rest.

Her family stays with her long after the other swans have left. But no matter how they coax the little swan, she simply tucks her head into her soft, warm wings.

As the snow melts and the miniature suns of petal and pistil cover the land in bloom, the young swan keeps lying still and quiet. One night, looking at the Moon, her father faces the impossible decision of doing what is best for the family.

By morning, the remaining swans have risen into the sky, calling out to the little one with their sad sonorous cries, only to hear her cry back that she cannot go.

And so they do. (There is no sorrow for a child like the sorrow of being left.)

The young swan watches them fly away over the still, still water.

Soon the swans disappear beyond the mountains. The young swan’s last goodbye echoes across the empty lake. She is alone.

But then, suddenly, a white constellation emerges from behind the crest of the mountain — her family has returned for her.

As they gather around her in the moonlight that night, the little swan buries her head into her feathers and falls asleep.

By morning, she has died.

At daybreak, heavy with grief, the swans who loved her lift off into the sky. (There is no sorrow for a parent like the sorrow of losing a child.)

When they arrive in the north, all the other swans have begun nesting. But to the bereaved family, “the land feels empty.”

Then, as the cold morning light breaks through with the promise of summer warmth, they feel a presence take shape in the clouds — the shape of memory, the shape of love, an echo of Hemingway’s insistence, in consoling his friends who had lost their young son, that “no one you love is ever dead.”

Complement Swan Sky with The Blue Songbird — a tender Japanese-inspired picture-book about finding your way home — and a penguin’s antidote to abandonment, then revisit Emily Dickinson on love and loss.

donating=loving

Each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

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John Quincy Adams on Impostor Syndrome and the True Measure of Success

“You will never get any more out of life than you expect,” Bruce Lee wrote to himself. All expectation is a story of the possible. Every person lives inside a story of who they are, what they are worth, and what is possible for their life, and suffers in proportion to how conscious they are of the story, how much credence they give those inner voices over the raw input of reality. It is often when life blindsides us with a bright counternarrative to a limiting inner story that we suffer the most, because we are suddenly forced to revise our entire personal mythos, to relinquish our familiar ways of keeping ourselves small, to exceed our own expectations of the possible.

At fifty-three, while serving as Secretary of State as presiding over the commission for weights and measurements, fighting valiantly for the adoption of the meter after its hard-won invention, John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) received the unexpected news that he has been elected President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. None of his credentials, none of his merits so obvious to others, kept him from feeling unworthy of the post.

John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.

In a diary entry from June of 1820, found in John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), Adams writes:

I answered the Letter and accepted the Office; because I thought there would be an appearance of affectation in refusing it — The Arts and Sciences have been the objects of my admiration through life; I would it were in my power to say they had been objects of my successful cultivation.

But beneath his private affection for these disciplines lurks Adams’s aching lack of confidence in his own authority. (Confidence is simply a way of moving through the world with a correct view of your strengths and vulnerabilities, a correct measure of your depths and your limits, in order to face the possible with unstoried willingness.) In a touching testament to how prevalent and indiscriminate the existential epidemic of impostor syndrome is, Adams writes:

Honours like these produce in my mind humiliation as well as pride. In this particular instance, I am mortified at being raised to the head of a learned Society, with qualifications so inadequate to the Station — Mortified, that in a Society which ought to include all the distinguished men of Letters and of Science in the State, there was no man so notoriously and conspicuously superior to me, as to have prevented the thought of me from occurring at-all — As the time is fast approaching, when if my life continues, I shall be consigned to retirement from Public life, the idea presents itself to me, that I may still exist for some purpose useful to my Country, by devoting the leisure of my declining days to the duties of this Scientific Office. To promote the taste, the culture and the refinement of Art and Science in my Country — Should my exit from the public theatre be such as to leave me with a competency for the comfortable subsistence of my family, and therefore the choice of employment for my time, this will perhaps offer me the means of filling it with satisfaction and with honour.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Five years later, Adams was elected President not only of the nation’s cultural pantheon but of the nation itself — to this day America’s most science-literate, science-passionate leader. Having unsuccessfully advocated for the adoption of the metric system — the rejection of which was America’s first great act of international arrogance with consequences reaching across epochs and across worlds, confusing generations of global citizens and culminating in NASA’s tragicomical $125 million loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter after American engineers failed to correctly convert metric measurements — Adams understood uniquely the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, and the proper aim of ambition.

Complement with how Nobel laureate John Steinbeck used the diary as a hedge against self-doubt and a classical guitarist’s account of overcoming impostor syndrome, then revisit Thoreau on defining your own success and Henry Miller on what makes a fulfilling life.

donating=loving

Every month, I spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars keeping The Marginalian going. For seventeen years, it has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, not even an assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your own life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a one-time or loyal donation. Your support makes all the difference.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.
 

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start NowGive Now

Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

Need to cancel an existing donation? (It's okay — life changes course. I treasure your kindness and appreciate your support for as long as it lasted.) You can do so on this page.

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