If you're a fan of neurochemistry and oxytocin, you probably know about the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for fight-or-flight type responses, and the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for calm-and-connection responses.
Marsha Lucas, PhD, wrote an excellent article explaining the polyvagal theory put forth by Stephen Porges, PhD (husband and colleague of Sue Carter, one of the primary oxytocin researchers).
His polyvagal theory suggests that there are three circuits (not just two branches), which drive one of three possible responses, depending on how we sense the relative safety, danger, or threat to life in our bodies. ... if the [amygdala's] assessment is that the incoming information indicates that things are safe, a third part of the circuit (the ventral vagus) essentially “turns off” the fight-flight response, and social engagement can happen – a calm state that supports being connected with others. Being in this state allows for better health, growth, and communication.
I've been a fan of the vagus nerve since writing Chemistry of Connection. It's a primary conduit of oxytocin from the brain to the gut and genitals, and it's likely responsible for the connection we feel between food and love. And it may be responsible for that feeling of oneness and connectedness that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls "elevation."
Read Marsha's article for an excellent explanation of how the amygdala works and what we can experience when we feel safe. Marsha does not mention oxytocin, but, when she writes, "When the ventral vagus is “on”, we have a greater capacity to really listen, in a tuned-in way, to others," that's the effect of oxytocin traveling along this nerve.
To read more:
The full article by Marcia Lucas is posted on Lisa Kift's blog.
Photo by eljay