University of Illinois professor of psychology, Steven Porges has developed a fascinating theory. He proposes that humans possess three distinct emotion/arousal regulating systems:
- The Immobilization System
- The Mobilization System, and
- The Social Engagement System.
The Immobilization System evolved first and is the most primitive. It is shared with other mammals. In the Immobilization System, when an animal is threatened, it plays dead. It isn’t just pretending; its heart and breathing rate so dramatically decrease that the animal appears to be dead. In humans, the Immobilization System doesn’t go that far, but it can kick in when a person feels helpless, that they have tried everything and nothing works or will work.
The next system to develop in mammals was the Mobilization System with its “fight or flight” response. If the animal sees or hears something that is unfamiliar or unexpected, stress hormones are released that lead to fighting or running away.
As the human cortex grew larger, “executive function” developed. With executive function, humans don’t instantly run or fight when stress hormones are released. Instead, the stress hormones trigger executive function. We do the executive function “ABCs.”
- A. We assess the situation.
- B. We build a plan of action (or inaction).
- C. We commit to the plan. Upon commitment, stress hormone release stops.
The huge human cortex also provides the ability to imagine. Imagination allowed humans to get ahead of the game. Humans cannot run fast enough to escape some animals. Nor are humans equipped – unless armed – to fight them off. Imagination of a threat means stress hormones are triggered – not just when a threat is close enough to be seen – but when a threat is imagined. In other words, once imagination became possible, the amygdala could react not only to what the eye sees but the the mind’s eye imagines. Though imagination offered humans additional protection, imagination presented a problem to solve. When we imagine something, it triggers the release of stress hormones. Hormones can make us feel like running away. Do we run away from every threat that comes to mind? Or do we run away only from threats that we reasonably expect to materialize? Good executive function runs away from (or avoids or controls) threats that are probable – not just possible. To do otherwise would be counterproductive; a human who had to run from every imaginable threat would soon collapse from exhaustion.
It is extremely unlikely that the plane you board will crash. Yet, imagination of it crashing can keep you grounded in spite of the fact that only one in twenty-some million flights fails to arrive safely. That is not a problem with good executive function. Healthy executive function moderates imagination. If the amygdala alerts it either to an imagined risk or a presented risk, good executive function does its “ABCs”and stress hormone production ends.
But impaired executive function is not probability based; it is possibility based. It is forced to control, avoid, or escape – not what is probable – but what is even remotely possible. That leaves the person with impaired executive function, like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. The person must mobilize against every threat that comes to mind! Who can keep up with doing the executive function ABCs for every imaginable threat? It can’t be done. Stress hormone production never ends.
But humans have developed a third, and even more advanced system. This system, the Social Engagement System, does not deplete valuable energy by fighting or running away unnecessarily. It promotes social interaction and the mutual protection and other benefits of a cohesive group. It uses facial expression and body language to distinguish whom to stay away from, and whom to partner with. In a further step, it plays a role in determining whom we get even closer to and reproduce with. Since it takes years to raise a child, the choice of a reproductive partner is crucial. In this closest of relationships, there is attunement and empathy, pair bonding and feelings of endearment. In reproductive behavior, the Social Engagement System completely inhibits the Mobilization System’s “fight or flight” response. Fear disappears, and lovers find the emotional safety to engage in reproductive behavior.
According to Porges, when the Social Engagement System is dominant, it pushes aside both the “fight or flight” system and the “play dead” system. When dominant, the Social Engagement System determines what is safe and what is unsafe by mental processes that are unconscious, such as by unconsciously reading faces and body language.
Neuroscientist Allan Schore has said that, in a state of attunement, the eyes directly link the emotional brain of one person with the emotional brain of another person. Research on facial expression when a person smiles suggests that we err if we go too much by intellect. When another person smiles at you, if their smile is spontaneous, certain muscles on their face contract that cannot be made to operate intentionally. They operate only when a smile is spontaneous. if there is eye contact, their smile triggers an automatic response; you reflexively smile in response to their smile. Your smile mirrors their smile. When you reflexively mirror their spontaneous smile, the corresponding involuntary muscles contract on your face. Contraction of these muscles is associated with times when you smiled spontaneously out of delight. Thus, when your muscles contract, you get a good feeling. The other person’s genuine smile evokes good feelings in you. Not so with a social smile, even if, intellectually, the smile looks great. The muscles that contract in a spontaneous smile cannot be made to operate intentionally. When you reflexively mirror a put-on social smile, you feel nothing. Some say that being empathic means putting yourself in another person’s shoes. If this is done intellectually, it is not really empathy. When we intellectually put ourselves in another’s shoes, we merely imagine what the other person is feeling. In true empathy, mirror neurons allow us to synthetically feel what the other person is feeling.
For the Social Engagement System to develop fully, we need experience with eye-to-eye and face-to-face relatedness. This begins with the relationship between mother and infant. When the child is distressed, the mother needs to allow herself, body and soul, to resonate with the child. She must take on the child’s body language. She must match her child’s prosody (prosody means all that is vocally expressed: pitch, rhythm, etc.). When the mother reproduces the child’s facial expression, body language, and prosody, she can feel what the child is feeling, not directly, but sythesized within herself.
The system responsible for this synthesized experience is the mirror neuron system. When we watch another person engaging in some activity, we physically follow their motions, or imaginarily match what they are doing. This, to some extent, causes us to synthetically feel what they feel, or taste. The mirror neuron system bridges the gap of separateness between one person and another. And, if this synchrony has not happened, or has not happened enough, we don’t feel connected to others.
A person who is secure in his or relationships with others has little or no trouble keeping the social system operating. When a person is present who is attuned, the social system purrs along. Even when alone, an internal replica of a good relationship keeps the Social Engagement System operating, and in turn, keeps the “fight or flight” system on standby. But a person who does not have internal replicas that stabilize his or her relationships can run into trouble. If the person they are with gives them the wrong look or says the wrong phrase, their social system shuts down, and their “fight or flight” system revs up. And, if they are alone, if they do not have an internal replica of a good relationship to stabilize them, again, their social system can collapse, and allow the mobilization system to become active.
When our feeling of separateness is not bridged, when our social connectedness is not adequate, the person loses the benefit of the social system and their emotional regulation is shifted to the Mobilization System. The person’s security is thrown back to reliance on control of the environment, control of situations, control of others, or avoidance.
Many of us are only conditionally secure; we go in and out of relying on the second system versus the third system. There are times when we feel secure and connected with another person. But all too easily, we lose our security and turn to “fight or flight”. The person who just moments ago was our lover is now our enemy; we must fight, or get away from that person.
This, again, I believe is the outgrowth of a not entirely secure relationship with our own parents. Or worse, it is the outgrowth of betrayal, or abuse. This makes it difficult for us to trust. We sometimes trust what we see on the other’s face; sometimes we don’t. All too easily, we slide into imagination of danger and lose our sense of connection with the other person. The gap of separateness becomes a chasm, and “fight or flight” seems the only option. Of course it does; our social system is off line. Since the Social Engagement System has been replaced with the Mobilization System, what the Mobilization System offers is our only option.
For the most part, what moves us from the calm of the Social Engagement System to fear in the Mobilization (“fight or flight”) System is psychic equivalence. When something threatening comes to mind, instead of recognizing it as imagination, we mistakenly accept that it is real. We think what we fear is actually taking place or is about to take place.
Since stress hormones are strongly associated with the Mobilization System, when stress hormones are released, there is a tendency for this association to push the person into the Mobilization System. Once the Mobilization System is activated, the person either uses good executive function to maintain emotional control, or the “fight or flight” response may cause anxiety or even panic. Good executive function is supported by keeping the mind sharp. This means avoiding medication and alcohol. It means being alert rather than tired. It means critiquing your own thinking. Question your version of reality. Before you accept it as real, demand solid evidence. If you don’t have solid evidence, don’t believe what you imagine.
But the Strengthening Exercise can keep you in the Social Engagement System automatically. There are moments in human life when what you see in another person’s eyes and on their face says something much too profound to be expressed by words. In such moments, the Mobilization System shuts down. When the Mobilization System is shut down, there can be no stress hormone release, no “fight or flight” response, and no fear.
The Strengthening Exercise taught in the SOAR Course shuts the Mobilization System down and maintains the Social Engagement System by linking each potentially threatening thought, movement of the plane, or noise to a moment when the Social Engagement System was at its strongest: a moment when the connection between two people is profound. Once we find a suitable moment, we link it to the challenge, whatever it is. Then, when a challenge takes place, the links cause the Social Engagement System to remain dominant; the “fight or flight” response is inhibited, and the flight is experienced as it is, rather than as it might be imagined.